Yesterday, I found out that my former professor, Dr. Andrew Dillon, had passed away after a long battle with cancer. It hit me in the way a solid steel door slams in your face, breaking your nose, and leaving you unsure if you’ll ever breath properly again. I’d already begun mourning Dr. Dillon weeks ago, when I first heard that he was terminally ill; recalling his wit, insight and advice and reading his poetry drove me to tears. Some losses must be honored slowly – and, sometimes, in advance – so that the heart is expressed before the overwhelming finality of death.
I remember visiting Dr. Dillon about five years after I’d graduated from Flagler College. Worried that he might not recall having seen me every single day, sometimes two or three times, for a solid year and a half, I was prepared to remind him of who I was. After all, he had so many students; why would I stand out as anything special? When I entered the English Department wing, Dr. Dillon just happened to be exiting his office. He turned, looked at me and smiled. I gave a half-wave and said, “Hi, Dr. Dillon. I don’t know if you remember me. I’m Miss Snarky Pants.”
Before I could speak another word, he recited a line from one of my poems to me, then said, “Of course, I remember you.” We chatted about life and poetry for awhile. As we spoke, he called to mind several lines from a few of my other poems – ones I’d submitted during the 18 months or so that I’d studied under his constant tutelage – and encouraged me to continue writing. “Never stop writing,” he’d said, before wishing me well and heading to his next class.
For a brief moment, I envied those students, sitting in their uncomfortable chairs, awaiting the professor who could leap tall desks with a single bound and rattle their teeth with blood-dripping lines from Macbeth. To be there instead of returning to the dreary classrooms – and somewhat equally dreary people – in law school. I knew then that law might be a career path, but it would never be my aspiration. Dr. Dillon had remembered my poem. He’d confirmed for me what I already knew to be true: I wasn’t meant to be a lawyer; I was meant to be a writer.
Recently, when I heard that Dr. Dillon was ill, I’d planned to write him a letter, expressing how much he’d meant to me as an English professor, and detailing the impact his instruction and support had on my life. But the only words that would come were words of mourning: “Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!” Poems of lamentation followed, but the praise, the gratitude, the marrow of all he meant to me were drowned out by my grief.
And then, weeks later, there was no time left. The final exam was over.The blue book was closed.
There were just these words:
For Dr. Andrew Dillon
frosted with strangled light,
remind me of you
and that day you stood in the bricked breezeway
that was shaped like a gravestone,
your fine white hair set ablaze
by the waning sun.
Even then, you seemed fragile, as if your bones
bore the weight of all tragic literature.
Still, you leaped like a mullet at the sight of the moon,
arching your back, bending your knees,
until your feet were planted on the desktop
and Lear rolled off your tongue,
dripping the loss of Cordelia.
Now, it is you who are poisoned –
the cancer, two wretched sisters plotting your demise –
and the chemo, guiltier than Regan and Goneril,
making promises it can’t keep,
in the sappy declarations you, my King Lear, long to hear.
And I fear I shall never again see the flames
that lit you from within:
Bill Stafford verse that made the vein in your temple dance;
the fictional, chicken-knuckled words you encouraged;
first stanzas you excised in bloody ballpoint;
their words trampled in a mad dash for the meat of it all.
Because, today, the sun – my constant star – is dying.
I still see you there, a raging silhouette,
fists balled against the supernova,
and I clamp my eyes shut,
so as not to see the cruel moment,
when you become that strangled light
frosting the grass.
Miss Snarky Pants