Thomas Hardy vs. Grief

In Tenebris

Thomas Hardy

Percussus sum sicut foenum, et aruit cor meum.” —Ps. ci.

Wintertime nighs; 
But my bereavement-pain 
It cannot bring again: 
Twice no one dies. 

Flower-petals flee; 
But, since it once hath been, 
No more that severing scene 
Can harrow me. 

Birds faint in dread: 
I shall not lose old strength 
In the lone frost’s black length: 
Strength long since fled! 

Leaves freeze to dun; 
But friends can not turn cold 
This season as of old 
For him with none. 

Tempests may scath; 
But love can not make smart 
Again this year his heart 
Who no heart hath. 

Black is night’s cope; 
But death will not appal 
One who, past doubtings all, 
Waits in unhope. 

Long long ago in a dormitory not so far away — five hours — I was confronted with this poem. At the time my dad was in a nursing home in Colorado Springs, his life suspended between a reclining wing-backed chair and a coma. Most Fridays I got on the Continental Trailways bus which I caught at the terminal in downtown Denver. Thinking about it, I can still smell the winter air and diesel wafting from the cold garage into the bus terminal waiting room with its chrome-armed benches and light green plastic upholstery from which the original pattern of pale ice cubes remained only on the sides where no one sat. $1.85 to get to Colorado Springs. I always had that, whatever expenses the week brought.

I stepped up the three steps with my little blue suitcase carrying homework and underwear (backpacks hadn’t become “the thing” yet), and handed my ticket to the conductor and took my seat by the window. Sometimes there was someone sitting beside me with stories to tell, often not. I wondered if my boyfriend would meet my bus or my mom. Usually it was my boyfriend, a man I later married, but that’s a subject for a blog post that will remain unwritten.

“Go see your dad,” said my mom when I walked in the front door, as if I needed to be told.

Whatever I found at the nursing home, I stayed. If he were lying in a coma, I did homework. If he were sitting up, we talked. By that time his speech was very garbled and he often used a Ouija board (imagine!) as an alphabet board to spell out the words he wanted to speak. He would point with his finger — spastic though his hands were, frustrating though it was for this short-tempered Irishman — and we would talk, sometimes for hours. He would tell me what to buy my mom to give her for Christmas, birthday, anniversary from him. His gifts to my mom were always something lovely. I would go to the new mall, The Citadel, filled with importance, carrying the checkbook that was our joint checking account, make the purchase and buy a mushy card on which Dad would scrawl what he could of the words, “I love you, Bill.” I always hoped that a gift would fix everything. I wonder if my dad hoped that, too.

Then the day came when I learned once and forever that hope is not enough. That paradoxical human thing without which we cannot live, but which cannot, in itself, keep anything alive, except itself. Hardy’s poem, which had been completely incomprehensible to me when I studied it the year before my father’s death, suddenly made too much sense, but it had a message I’ve retained all my life, “Twice no one dies…” followed by, “

… But death will not appal 
One who, past doubtings all, 
Waits in unhope. 

I spent the next three months pretty much alone at school, avoiding friends, studying, trying to make sense of life without my best friend. My dad’s death was a rocket that shot me into a universe none of my peers seemed to inhabit. I could see them from a distance, but I couldn’t hear them.

It took a L–O–N–G time to understand hope, and, again, Thomas Hardy (whose poetry I had in a HUGE book, The Poems of Thomas Hardy, by that time, not just in my even HUGER anthology of Victorian poetry) spoke to me in his poem, “The Darkling Thrush”

I leant upon a coppice gate
      When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
      The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
      Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
      Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
      The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
      The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
      Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
      Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
      The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
      Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
      In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
      Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
      Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
      Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
      His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
      And I was unaware.

Featured photo: Bus station in Colorado Springs back in the day… My dad had multiple sclerosis, diagnosed when he was 27, died when he was 45. I was 20.

“Thank you, Lord, for thinkin’ ’bout me. I’m alive and doin’ fine.”

We were just kids, didn’t know our asses from our elbows, and were all about to take the big step into the big world where things were not ordered and interpreted by the deacons of First Baptist Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Some of us were excited for the BIG ADVENTURE of the REAL world which, in the late 60’s and early 70’s was a pretty flash place rife with sex and drugs and rock’n’roll. We were a close knit bunch, most of us honor students, and I had the supreme honor of being elected President of the BYF (Baptist Youth Fellowship). Unfortunately, I made some miscalculations about the motives of the church leaders and ended up being thrown out of my youth group but still “allowed” to attend church. Pretty damned white of them, don’t you think? You can read about that event here. My long ago post about an unctuous deacon at my church It’s a good story.

Many of the church leaders felt that “shunning” and “ejecting” me was unfair and attempted to bring me back into the fold. After all, I had a demonstrably fucked up family, dad rushing toward death from MS, mom on drugs and booze and a little brother who was headed for the dark side. There was every possibility that I could be saved from perdition. I clearly had a good heart, a good soul, knew my Bible, had made some big contributions to the church and the youth group from which I’d been ejected, and Jesus didn’t want to lose the members of his flock.

The local Baptist summer camp — Black Forest Baptist Assembly — needed counsellors and one of my “allies” talked my mom into letting me be a counselor for a week at a kid’s camp. I wasn’t really aware of it at the time, but I needed to be away from my mom. My mom, on the other hand, needed me at home to help with my dad. The Pastor came, talked to my mom about it and I got to go. I was 18, just out of high school, had suffered my first serious broken heart, was about to start college. It was 1970.

That week counseling a group of Jr. High girls at Black Forest Baptist Assembly in a primitive camp was absolutely wonderful fantastic life-altering and redemptive. I had never had a summer camp experience. I had never slept in a tent. I’d spent a lot of time in woods and hills, but had never had the chance to share that with anyone. The Pastor who ran that camp was great. He loved the outdoors, was generous-hearted, funny and the kids loved him. A few weeks afterward, I started college.

The next summer I was invited back. It seemed that in spite of my questionable allegiance to Baptist tenets, I was a gifted summer camp counselor. My mom was persuaded to let me spend most of the summer as a CIT, Counselor in Training, which meant that I would counsel a few camps, work in the kitchen preparing meals for the primitive camps, and share a cabin with a friend. I’d also have a chance to lead arts and crafts if any of the camp leaders wanted it.

I had my second run-in with “unctuous deacons” that summer.

The same Pastor who had been so great the year before ran one of the camps in which I would be working and he specifically asked if I would be counseling that summer. I didn’t know that in the intervening year, he’d become “born again” at a revival meeting. He’d experienced a visitation of the “spirit” and had spoken in tongues. His orientation to the camp experience had changed completely. Rather than games of “steal the bacon,” nature hikes, campfire songs and s’mores, the kids were rounded up and made to sit for HOURS in the ONE enclosure in the primitive camp while the pastor pushed toward a “charismatic” experience with the Lord. It was awful. The kids were junior high kids, not all from a church, some just there because it was truly the best camping experience in the area (usually).

Finally, one rainy evening, after dinner, as a thunderstorm broke all around us, a group of kids and I ran away to take a hike. As the storm ended, we climbed a ridge. The sun was dropping behind the mountains, hitting the mammatus clouds with golden light. The same light reflected on water droplets all around us. It was a shimmering, glimmering, light-filled, brand new world of sublime beauty.

“We should have communion,” said one of the kids.

“We don’t have any bread or juice,” said another kid.

“I’ll go down to the main camp and get some.”

“OK,” I said, equally enchanted by the beauty of the moment from this high place, the rapidly changing light and the authentic fellowship of a dozen kids (including me) on a hard hike. He ran down the hill, raided the kitchen, stole a pack of Chips Ahoy cookies and a bottle of fruit drink.

There on that hill we shared a spiritual experience in Nature’s holy light. Instead of Kumbaya or some other hymn-like thing we joined hands and sang a pop song…

“And then?” you might be wondering… Well the Pastor complained to the camp director who then called me in and asked me what happened. I explained it all, expecting to be ejected and shunned yet again but no.

“I agree with you, Martha. That’s what camp is for. Enjoying the beauty and blessings of nature, God’s gift to us. I don’t approve of this charismatic stuff. It’s not for everyone, and certainly not for children. As you know, a lot of our campers are not Baptist or maybe any faith. Browbeating them into believing something is wrong. I’ll talk to him.”

The upshot was that I worked two more camps that summer, and met the boy who might have been the great love of my life (last time I saw him was 2004). Then a day came when my mom showed up out of no where and said, “You have to come home. I can’t take care of your dad myself. We have to take him to a nursing home.”

But I had that sunset and it lit my heart forever.

A story on this subject you might enjoy is Langston Hughe’s “Salvation.”

Michael J. Preston

Daily Prompt Mentor Me Have you ever had a mentor? What was the greatest lesson you learned from him or her?


At the top of the third flight of stairs was an office looking out on the campus. An arched window faced west. The floor was piled high with neatly stacked punch cards and books. In front of a big desk, also piled high but this time with papers, books and a pair of large Wellington clad feet sat a lanky red-haired man with a very British/Nordic face (kind of like the real Lawrence of Arabia), a large nose and very blue eyes. He looked to be in his twenties — but to me at 18, he was a GROWN UP a PROFESSOR, a little scary, even. I’d never sought out or spoken to a professor. Hell, I’d only be at college two days.

“Excuse me. Are you Mr. Preston?”

“Yes. How can I help you?”

“I want to take your class, Middle English Verse Romances, but I don’t have the prerequisites. I’m just a freshman and I haven’t taken Intro to British Literature.” Already at 18 I had a resistance to survey courses…

“Do you have your paper?” He swung his feet off the desk and turned around in his creaky old swivel chair.

“Yeah.” I handed it to him.

“Why do you want to take this class?” he asked as he signed it.

“I’m interested in Middle English Verse Romances.”

No I wasn’t. I wanted to take the class because I didn’t think I needed any freshman courses. I was the shit. I was smart and advanced and perceptive and a great writer and I didn’t need to jump the hoops. I could take a senior level English class my first semester of college and ace it.

“OK,” he said. “There’s a lot of reading. So who are you?”

“I’m Martha Kennedy,” I stuck out my hand to shake. He took it in his giant paw.

“All right, Martha Kennedy. You’re in the class. Go turn this in.”

Thinking back on that moment now, I also think of the innumerable students who walked into my classes over the years. I remember uncountable first days. I remember the shining eyes, the undaunted expressions, the certainty that they’d ace my class and go on to the next thing NO PROBLEM. I don’t know how many times I warned them, “Don’t set your sights on an A. Set your sights on learning something. You have no idea what’s going to happen during the semester. I do. Some of you are going to lose interest — you’re sophomores and there’s a verified phenomenon known as ‘sophomore slump.’  Some of you are going to have skate-boarding accidents and break something. Some of you are going to fall in love and some of you are going to be dumped by your lovers. Some of you will have family problems. Some of you will get mono or something.” I know somewhere inside I was remembering my first and second (and third and fourth) years of college and university.

I didn’t know how I would be my first time away from home. I didn’t know I’d miss my family, that dysfunctional assemblage that I had been so eager to escape. I didn’t know I’d get a very dangerous case of bronchitis and need to be in the health center hospital for almost a month. I didn’t know that my heart was still broken from the summer before. I didn’t know that rebelling against everything was stupid. I didn’t know I’d have horrible roommates (I did).  I didn’t know, I didn’t know, I didn’t know…

Mr. Preston was always there, in that office with the afternoon light, the books on the floor and the computer punch cards. He was in the process of making the first ever computer generated index to a literary work — he was compiling a concordance to Chaucer.

At a certain point in the semester, realizing I was lost, I started following him around and he let me. When I was in health services, he was alerted to the fact that I was missing class because I was desperately ill. It was he who was there when I was discharged and took me for coffee, sitting and talking with me about my life and my family. That afternoon — blustery and Novembery — I went with him to the biology lab where he picked up a dozen pullets that he’d be taking to his farm between Longmont and Boulder. His black jeans were always covered with cat hair and feathers and now I understood why.

We carried the chickens to his car and he said something useful to me that I no longer remember, but it had something to do with ignoring everything that didn’t really matter. What might that have been? I’d just been in a play and gotten the only mention in the local paper for the role I played. I’d declared an art major, but wasn’t doing very well in that area, in fact, my first sculpture project had ended in my being pulled into the president’s office to give an explanation. I’d taken on an immense project for anthropology, one I couldn’t possibly do. I was always trying to find marijuana because I was determined to be a hippy. I wanted a boyfriend, but didn’t want to sleep with anyone. I yearned and yearned and yearned in vague and inchoate yearning, but? I was pushing the envelope as hard as I could without knowing why. If I had seen myself as the teacher I became, I’d have been Mr. Preston, too. In fact, I can think of several students to whom I was “Mr. Preston.”

Mr. Preston was somewhat like my father. He was brilliant, individualistic and iconoclastic. He respected things done well. He was too alive to be called an intellectual, but he definitely had an intellect. He taught class sitting on the back of a chair, his feet on the seat, a cup of coffee sloshing as he gestured. I thought he was wonderful.

I couldn’t really read Sir Gawain and the Grene Knight or anything else assigned in the class, but I managed to write a decent final paper and Mr. Preston let me take his next senior class, Restoration Drama. Second semester was somewhat better. Going home for Christmas helped; not smoking pot helped. I was a more sober and focused girl than I’d been in fall, but I was also sad and scared. My dad (who had MS) wasn’t doing well. My brother was not at home much, even though he was only sixteen. My mom? All I can say is we fought constantly and viciously.

My dorm mother (who’d decided I was anti-social, depressed and insane) had the college send me to see the school psychologist. He was a nice man and he asked me concrete questions about my life and my family. At the end of the session he said, “I don’t think you need to come back. There’s nothing wrong with you. Your family has some real problems. I think you’re scared for the future and sad for your dad. I think you’re worried about your little brother and you’ve been carrying a big load on your shoulders. You need to take advantage of being here and not at home. You have an opportunity here to learn and you should use it. Come back any time you want to talk.”

He was right, of course. I immediately went to see Mr. Preston and told him about it. He nodded in agreement through my whole recitation. He said, “Your dorm mother thinks that because you’re young you can’t have any real problems. But you have some real problems. Next year, find another dorm.” I did find another dorm, but I also remembered that being young doesn’t mean “trouble free.” That right there made me a better teacher when my turn came.


I discovered that at my school (Colorado Women’s College RIP) I could take any class I wanted. All I had to do was find one other student who wanted it and a professor qualified to teach it. I wanted to learn Greek so I could read Homer in the original language. I found another girl who wanted it and I went to Mr. Preston who said he’d teach it.

Back then, photocopies DID exist but they were expensive and the machines were few and far between. He had his text from the Jesuit school he’d gone to as a boy, and had three copies made.

“I can only do this at 8 am.”

“OK,” I said. He knew I slept until noon.

“You’ll have to be there because it’s going to mean I have to get up at 4 to take care of the animals before driving in from Boulder.”

“I can do it,” I said.

“XXX (the other girl) said that works for her. All right. We’ll meet Mondays through Thursday mornings at 8 am.”

Looking back, I know Mr. Preston was — among other things — trying to get me to learn self-discipline, to put learning something above staying up all night and sleeping half the day. I also know, now, that that those habits seem to be a common among post-adolescents. Most of the kids I taught over the years thought a 1 pm class was a morning class…

Fall semester rolled around and I moved into a new dorm, which I loved, had my own room, which I loved. Other things had happened over the summer and I was a more settled girl, more focused on learning something, more focused on the future that was becoming clearer — my dad was now in a nursing home and that meant that however much longer he lived, it would not be long. MS is not a deadly disease, but it does weaken the body and the immune system as organs and muscles stop functioning as well as they should. My mom no longer had a burden heavier than she could carry. I could only hope she’d begin to build a life of her own because she’d need one soon.

Greek was great — though very difficult. We read the Odyssey. We didn’t study grammar or vocabulary, we just read Homer. It was a good way to learn. It was the way Mr. Preston had learned. Every day I went back to my room and translated Homer. I liked my classes that semester, I made friends, and moved quickly along toward that vaunted goal of graduation. By the end of my second year, I was classified as a second semester Junior.

My father died in February of that school year. After the funeral I kept to myself. I studied a lot. I spent time with Mr. Preston and quietly digested these events that most people at age 20 have not experienced. I don’t remember anything Mr. Preston said to me, I only remember having lunch in the cafeteria with him and other teachers and some of my friends, of listening to them debate ideas and laugh, of following him to his office and sitting in a comfy chair and trying to read Greek.

He was my mentor, but he did his mentoring by being himself and never closing the door to me. I am sure he gave me good advice and useful life lessons. I’m sure I used them for my own well-being and later for the well-being of the students who came my way, equally fucked up, confused and scared. The one thing I can say for sure is that his presence in my life during those troubled years was a beacon of light flashing the words, “Be yourself” against the uncertain firmament of my dark sky.