Copyright © 1996 Mars Hill Review 5 · Summer 1996: pgs 93-98.
I want to write this while I think he is still alive.
I saw him last in late fall, a symbolic time in poetry, I tell my students. It is one thing they understand immediately, something they feel in their bones.
He was sitting in his wheelchair on the porch of his Atlanta home. His hair was matted in gray swirls, like morning grass where deer have slept. The white stubble of a week's beard spiked his face. A striped robe wrapped haphazardly around his wrinkled cotton pajamas. His head hung down near his chest. He would not have seemed out of place in the senility ward of a decaying home for forgotten people.
Things were not always so.
I first met Dr. Evans in his small office in the Romance Languages building of Emory University. I had waited for him for a year. "Take your language requirement from Dr. Evans," I had been advised. "He likes lit grad students in his class, and he'll let you do your paper in English."
So I waited for him to get back from his sabbatical year in Italy. We stood in his small office and I asked for permission to get into his graduate French class. He was aristocratically gray, slightly built, with a taut carriage that masked his shortness.
"How much French have you studied?"
"I understand it better than I speak it." The familiar lie. "I think I will be able to keep up in the course."
"You're from the English department?"
"Yes. I've finished my course work, but haven't met the language requirement yet."
He looked off into the air, not wanting, it seemed, to make me compromise my integrity any further.
"Well, I am sure that you will learn something."
I survived the course, looking attentive while everyone rattled on in French. I did my paper on a passage in Proust-a close New Critical reading that clever English majors can do in their sleep. It was perhaps a nice change of pace for Dr. Evans from pleasant young students who found it easier to speak in two languages than to think in either (a condescending judgment which Dr. Evans would not approve).
Now, however, speaking at all is problematic for Dr. Evans. Parkinson's disease, which first gave him tremors, then brief moments of paralysis, and then took away his legs, has now forbidden him to speak.
He does not obey.
He talks to me on his porch in that late fall meeting, holding up his end of the conversation better than I can mine. Sadly, however, I cannot understand what he is saying. He speaks in a low, rapid mumble. Each word sounds the same to me, like the throaty murmur of an idling motor.
It was not so nearly twenty years ago when, after being mercifully passed in the French class, I sat in on his Dante seminar. He spoke quietly then as well, but with authority and precision. It was the kind of authority that even those who see all authority as exploitation might allow: gentle, not insistent, but, because he was a source of so much light, compelling. He taught like a shy lover, speaking with quiet affection about words he loved.
Now, on his porch, those words were imprisoned in his brain, making breaks for freedom but dying on the inarticulate air, victim of disobedient lip and tongue. I gathered them in but could sift no meaning. I wished his wife, Tass, would join us. Perhaps she could interpret for me, as those close to the impaired often can. But Tass was on the telephone when I arrived and didn't seem about to get off.
There was no point in pretending to understand. I simply said, "I'm sorry. I do not understand what you are saying." I hoped he would not try again. He immediately tried again.
It was not this way when he first got the disease. I used to see him every year or two, usually in the summer. After graduate school I had moved to Minneapolis, Dr. Evans's boyhood home. Whenever he visited his parents, he would call and we would meet and talk. Once we played tennis together and I entertained him with the story of Ezra Pound's frenetic approach to the game. He later claimed to have mentioned my wicked forehand in a letter of recommendation for one of my futile grant applications (it was characteristic that he would be silent about my backhand).
I both prized and was discomfited by these meetings. Dr. Evans and I were, it seemed to me, from different worlds. He spoke and read many European languages. I spoke native Californian. He wrote monographs about Eastern European writers and scholars whom I had never even seen on a list. I was teaching Baptist kids how to construct a thesis sentence. He was a man of culture and grace. I was the child of an itinerant preacher and truck driver. He was a man in the graying phase of a fine career. I was in the survival phase of a noncareer, trying to do right by wife and children.
We talked of literature and the world. He always inquired about my writing. I always was honest about doing none. He never failed to tell me I should be writing, without leaving any residue of guilt that I wasn't. He made it seem that of course when I got around to writing it would go well, but that, yes, it was certainly acceptable that I wasn't writing at the moment.
Once he came to my house for breakfast. He showed genuine affection for my children and never failed to ask about each of them individually after that. He thought highly of my wife, Jayne, which speaks well for both of them.
One year we talked while walking around Lake of the Isles in south Minneapolis. It was the summer of the overthrow of the Shah of Iran. We agreed that it seemed a good thing and that initial complaints about the Ayatollah Khomeini's persecution of enemies seemed exaggerated. Clearly, reading and goodwill do not guarantee political judgment.
That may have been the last time we walked together. He informed me by letter that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's. The next time we met he looked fine but we did not walk. A year or two after that things were different.
We met at his sister's house. She greeted me at the door. I looked for the same natural dignity in her that was in her older brother and thought I found it. "Art is out back on the patio." She took me through the house and out to a small backyard shaded by large trees. Dr. Evans was seated in a white wrought-iron chair beside a small table on which sat lemonade and cookies. A second chair waited on the other side of the table.
Only later did I realize that he had arranged to be seated and in place when I arrived. He greeted me warmly as always, perhaps more witty and animated even than usual. He inquired about Jayne and the children. We talked about the university and people I had known. We moved on to writers and writing when the first spell of paralysis came on. I think he was in the middle of a sentence about Hemingway in Italy when the words wound down and his face locked. He raised just a finger on his left hand to signal me not to be alarmed. In less than thirty seconds he managed to whisper, "Just a moment. It will pass in a moment." And a few seconds later he finished his comment about Hemingway.
We talked directly about the disease then. He said, among other things, that it might be affected by his personality. He was given to dark periods, he said. It was the first I knew of it. He indicated that psychological profiles of people with Parkinson's showed a correlation with personality types. I don't think he used the word "depression."
I was momentarily preoccupied with this revelation of "dark periods." Where amidst all that learning, all that grace, all that human kindness was there room for darkness of mind and spirit? And where did his tracking after God enter in?
We both were Christians in an out-of-date sense. He was Catholic. I was a mongrel Protestant-heir of as many backwater denominations as would have my father to preach to them for a year or two at a time.
We didn't talk about religion much, but enough to know we were both out of step with our times and our profession. He related that two of Tass's great thrills in life were running unexpectedly into Mother Teresa, once on a plane and again at a hospital. "A moment of blessing" was how he put it, I think. I tried to tell him something of life among the fundamentalists and he seemed to understand.
I didn't know exactly what Dr. Evans believed or how, but I was sure it was thoughtful, and gentle, and, what shall I say, profound. And I'm sure it had something to offer him for those dark periods, but not anything that would explain them away. Maybe it was dark periods that started him feeling for transcendence in the first place.
We had only infrequent contact between visits, usually in the form of a card from him or a short letter from me. His cards would often bear only a citation of an interesting article: "See TLS 21 March 1977 for nice piece on Wyndham Lewis," and on one occasion two taped Karl Barth stamps. As the disease progressed the handwriting on the cards degenerated. The last had only two words, declining precipitously toward the bottom of the card. As best I could figure out, they said, "Miss you."
And now here I was in the late fall sitting in Atlanta on the porch of this man whose body had almost completely abandoned him. I was uncomfortable but determined to be natural, to do what a friend would do for a friend in this situation, even a friend a generation older whom one knew only incompletely.
I tried carrying the conversation by myself, to tell what I was up to these days, how Jayne and the children were, what books I had been reading. But all this filled only a few minutes at best and I was left scratching for words to overcome the silence. I hadn't the courage to be quiet, nor the heart to keep repeating, "I do not understand"-knowing that this only prompted him to try again.
I decided this must be painful for him and concluded I should leave. I felt profoundly sad. This was an incredible waste. Dr. Evans should be at the peak of his powers. He should have ten years before retirement to plow whatever fields of thought he wants to plow and then ten or twenty more years enjoying his grandchildren and books and art museums and Italy.
Moreover, we are losing, I thought, a gentleman scholar of a kind often joked about but whose value we are only beginning to recognize as they disappear. He is, in one sense only, like the sisters whom Gabriel Conroy toasts in "The Dead" as practitioners of a now unfashionable graciousness in a contentious and "thought tormented" age. He is not to be sentimentalized like Joyce's maiden aunts, but the widespread loss of such civility and humaneness should be more lamented than it is.
But civility and humaneness are insufficiently substantial words. These are the prized and disappearing qualities that allow us to talk together profitably about things which divide us. There seems little room for them in a world where so many people preface their assertions with the formula "I am outraged." But important as they are, these are not adequate to describe Dr. Evans. His is graciousness in the theological sense-the showing of unmerited favor, seeing and treating people as better than they deserve, as God treats us. If we have ever experienced such grace, we know its transforming power.
As I rose to leave that afternoon, Dr. Evans spoke once more. I leaned forward, determined to understand at least something before I went.
"i mm eadim or n pees."
"I'm sorry. I didn't understand."
"i mm eadin wor n pece."
"War and Peace?"
"I mm reademm war un peace."
He was reading War and Peace.
I was greatly moved and humbled. Even though I knew that the disease had attacked his brain, not his mind, I had somehow drifted into accepting that his physical appearance was a partial index to his mental life.
Such a mistake was an insult to our relationship and to my knowledge of him. The slow extinguishing of the body did not prevent him from nursing the fires of the mind. He was not raging against the dying of the light so much as tending his own beacon. This was, in every crucial respect, still the man who had pretended to believe I understood French so many years before.
When I announced my departure, Dr. Evans protested that I had just gotten there, which was true. But I had already stood to go, and I feared my staying only brought him frustration. I knew another former student was due in a few minutes. And I knew also that part of me wanted to escape the pain of being helpless to release an extraordinary man from his lot.
As I walked down the porch, leaving Dr. Evans in his wheelchair, I looked in the window at Tass as she spoke on the phone. I thought she gave me a reproachful look, perhaps only the projection of my own troubled spirit. Six months later I called Dr. Evans's son, knowing that my friend could not himself be understood on the phone. He told me Tass had died of cancer. Dr. Evans was weaker. It didn't seem fair.
It has been over a year now and I haven't called again. I tell myself at least once a week I am going to call. Maybe I will as soon as I finish writing this. Yes, I will definitely call.
Of course the reason I do not is that I am afraid to hear that Dr. Evans has died. I know when that happens the world will be diminished and so will I. And I know I will feel guilty.
But why so gloomy? Perhaps he is still fighting the good fight. Perhaps I'll find that he is reading, in Italian, the Paradiso.
Note: Arthur Evans has now died. I don't know that he got around to reading the Paradiso, but I like to believe he is now experiencing it firsthand.