Lift Off

Ben Townsend/Flickr
Ben Townsend/Flickr

Roger Angell, writing in 2012 about the death of his wife, Carol, some months earlier, tells what their son dreamed on the night his mother died. Angell writes,

She is hovering close to him, and they are on 110th Street, close to the Harlem Meer, at the northeast corner of Central Park. The Park is bursting with spring blossoms. She is walking a dog that might be our fox terrier Andy. Then she falls behind John Henry. He turns to find her, and she has become an almost black shape and appears to be covered with feathers or black-and-dark-gray Post-its. She and the dog lift off the ground and go fluttering past him, and disappear over the low wall of the Park.

Lifting off the ground, topping the low wall, disappearing over the park, dog on a leash sailing away too: the description brings to my mind Mary Poppins, who arrives and leaves through a park, with an umbrella or bunch of balloons in hand, remarkable to the children who watch open-mouthed, though she touches down and departs as matter-of-factly as if she were taking a bus. The children soon know that when the wind changes, Mary Poppins will be gone. By the time we’ve lived many years, we know those fickle, changing winds, know that people do depart, and that others are left behind. The survivors, as they are called in the obits, manage to go on.

Published in The New Yorker along with the essay, which is called “Over the Wall,” is a photo from decades earlier of the two of them, Carol and Roger Angell, sitting together on the top step of their front porch in Brooklin, Maine. Her face is turned, and we see her in profile, laughing toward her husband, who sits close beside her, smiling straight at the camera. Her laughter puts starchy Mary Poppins to shame, as does the dog she owned. An umbrella or kite or bunch of balloons are all very well, but a fox terrier on a leash is better, homier, more enjoyable. A dog is a companion, not just a prop. “She,” I say aloud, “looks like so much fun,” as if I were reporting on her. Him I address directly, as if, though much older by the time of publication than in the picture and probably deaf, he can hear me. But it is now a dozen years since his essay was published, and he has departed too, over the park, so I am somewhat confused about whom I’m addressing: the man in his mid-40s sitting on the top step, or the 92-year-old author of the essay, or the deceased 101-year-old. I say, “You must be so proud of her.” I’m trying to see the happy side, because I am sorry for his loss. I’m sorry even though he himself no longer is.

He writes in the essay of losing some details over time, but says that he no longer worries about what he might forget: enough of her endures. He describes revisiting her in photographs and enjoying, in particular, looking at her hands. She died in April, he published the essay in November. He says a lot of time has passed, though I think seven or eight months is nothing. Yet it is enough time to alter his feeling about the dead whose graves he has visited in the cemetery in Maine over the spring and summer. These people are his wife, his parents, a brother, and a daughter, among others, and he sees them, by the time he writes his essay, as cleansed by time, free of cares and pleasures that once bound them to earth. The dead, Angell writes, are less and less aware of us. It is as if they sink deeper and deeper into their graves, farther removed from the living, slowly reverting to a state of innocence. He writes, “I think of them often—my seniors, my innocents, my babies—and envy them, and believe that many others my age have had this passing thought as well, and have from time to time felt a flow of protective love for them, and even a bit of pride that we can stand in for them, or stand up for them.”

He was proud of her, I imagine, the way you are proud of a group of kindergarten children on a spring day, all happy to be in line and holding hands while waiting for the bus to come take them on their school trip. Protective love, he says. Would you not worry about the weather, about the wind whipping up and the clouds scudding by, the change at first providing a touch of excitement and a welcome distraction for the waiting children? You would, you do—I did when I saw a small hoard of Spanish schoolchildren all holding hands in preparation for a school outing, though you can do nothing to stop the gusts or ensure the lasting sunshine.

When Roger Angell died two years ago, did he float over the wall after Carol and Andy? Why ever not. The dead don’t need umbrellas, balloons, or terriers on leashes. The dead, Angell seems to suggest, are free.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Clellan Coe, a writer in Spain, is a contributing editor of the Scholar.


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