The richness of a dying woman’s love
By Brian Doyle
Was rereading my boy Henry Louis Mencken this morning, and while the usual temptation is to offer a Pub Debate Poser, like “Is Mencken the greatest testiest funniest saltiest bluntest most honest American journalist ever?” instead I find myself thinking of him sitting in his window on Hollins Street in Baltimore, in the house he has lived in almost all his life. It’s 1953. He had a terrible stroke five years ago and he can hardly speak or read or write—he who made his living and his name and his joy from speaking and reading and writing. He has three years left to live and he probably knows it—he often spoke of himself in the past tense in his last years. He spends all his time organizing his papers. Probably he burned the ones he did not want history to read; love letters to the wrong women, let’s say. Maybe that’s what’s smoldering in the grate as he sits and watches the children running down the street home from school. He thinks of his wife Sara, their brief years together before she died of tuberculosis; they were married in 1930, to the astonishment of everyone who knew the Confirmed Bachelor of Hollins Street, and she died in 1935, and Mencken never married again, and rarely spoke of her. But imagine for a moment not the famous testy brilliant writer Mencken, the Sage of Baltimore—imagine the poor man, 73 years old, musing by the window, over a street he has known since he was three years old. For a moment he sees Sara, shawled and smiling by the fire, her face beaming, though so thin, harried by all that coughing; and for an instant he starts to rise to go to her and cup her face in his hands and say, Thank you for saving me from myself; but then he remembers. Perhaps there is a moment then when he thinks dark thoughts of what he has lost—his voice, his love, a way to sing his writerly soul into the world—but he never lost his humor, so it is said, so let us leave him thinking that at least he had five years with his beloved Sara, and look, the last and youngest schoolchild running by under his window stops and waves to old Mr. Mencken, poor Mr. Mencken. But I am richer than Croesus because she loved me, he thinks, smiling, and waves back to the child, who runs into the gathering evening.
Epiphanies will resume in December.
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of the novel The Plover. He writes the weekly Epiphanies column at theamericanscholar.org.
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