April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain
Somehow I have always known these lines. They are timeless to me, part of the DNA of my internal narrative. I sometimes forget they have a human author and open The Waste Land.
I did not always know the centuries older words of Chaucer’s Middle English Canterbury Tales—-perhaps the most famous in literary history, when April was the sweetest month—-that T.S. Eliot was inversely echoing, filtered through the monstrous death of the trenches of World War One.
Whan that April with his showres soote
The droughte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veine in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flowr
Eliot could not see the flowers of April and life-giving rain without thinking of death. Such was the impact of WWI.
It is poignant and chilling that this connection was one of John Gregory Dunne’s last earthly thoughts.
From Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking:
“At another point in those seconds or that minute he had been talking about why World War One was the critical event from which the entire rest of the twentieth century flowed.”
And then Dunne was dead of a massive coronary.
The death of a civilization to the death of the individual.
My father met death in April at age 54. Although it was many years ago, this date doesn’t pass without memory and a desire to meet for lunch.
He started growing not lilacs, but roses in what would be the last 10 years of his life. A serious rose garden is a very consuming passion in the planning and constant tending of the bushes. The rewards were highly satisfying, in the beauty and variety of roses that filled the house. But the rose thing was a surprise—nothing in the Dad I knew led up to it. We chalked it up to midlife crisis.
Just a few years ago, I stumbled upon one of his college textbooks. It was an anthology of modern French literature, completely in French. On the inside front cover he had written “Memorize page 47.”
And on page 47 is the second half of a poem by Francois de Malherbe “Consolation a M. du Perier sur la Mort de Sa Fille”: Consolation to Madame du Perier on the death of her daughter”
My father had bracketed just one particular line:
“Mais elle etait du monde, ou les plus belles choses
ont le pire destin:
Et, rose, elle a vecu ce que vivent les roses,
L’espace d’un matin.”
“But she was of the world,
Where the most beautiful things have the worst fate:
And being a rose, she lived what all roses live,
Just one single morning.”
It was a touching, eerie “from the grave” moment. My father had never spoken of French poetry to me. I had no idea he had studied so much in the language.
But here I held in my hand proof that the idea of the fleeting beauty of the rose had touched my 19-year-old father deeply enough for him to note it, and memorize it, in French. That's a very special kind of spirit. Thirty years later he gave life to roses himself.
I don’t know how many other thoughts and dreams that 19-year-old kid from Brooklyn had. I witnessed some of the disappointments and frustrations that plagued him as an adult. Now all I can do is pray that he has the fullness of peace and Divine love in his eternal rest.