Saturday, September 1, 2012

In Memory of a Great Oak

It is right and proper that a great many people are mourning the untimely death of Greg Houston, one of the kindest and most generous people I have known.  He died in a one-vehicle crash last Monday morning, and a whole church is mourning him; his memorial service will be tomorrow at 1:00.  I believe there are plans to plant an oak tree on the grounds of the church in his memory.  It was Tom who said, "if Teena was a wildflower, Greg was an oak."

It almost seemed wrong that Tom and I, and many others, are mourning Greg so when we were not family members or even best friends.  Just - friends with someone we all knew was an unusually good man.  But I remembered some lines of poetry, as I often do when a death is hard to bear, and was able to find the poem.  I am reprinting it here.  It was this poem's last lines that consoled me, how it says we have the right to grieve a death however much we do, even if it's "just" a student or a pet, even if we have "no rights in this matter."  The poem, written in 1953, brings to life a girl who may be otherwise little remembered.  This is one of the things art can do.
I remember the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils;
And her quick look, a sidelong pickerel smile;
And how, once startled into talk, the light syllables leaped for her,
And she balanced in the delight of her thought,
A wren, happy, tail into the wind,
Her song trembling the twigs and small branches.
The shade sang with her;
The leaves, their whispers turned to kissing,
And the mould sang in the bleached valleys under the rose.

Oh, when she was sad, she cast herself down into such a pure depth,
Even a father could not find her:
Scraping her cheek against straw,
Stirring the clearest water.

My sparrow, you are not here,
Waiting like a fern, making a spiney shadow.
The sides of wet stones cannot console me,
Nor the moss, wound with the last light.

If only I could nudge you from this sleep,
My maimed darling, my skittery pigeon.
Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love:
I, with no rights in this matter,
Neither father nor lover.
[The image above is a Zen garden in the Bloedel Reserve, built on the site of the swimming pool in which the poet Roethke suffered a heart attack and died in 1963, at age 55.  I understand this garden is open to the public, but Roethke is not memorialized there by any sign.  I didn't remember this when I went looking for this poem, but Roethke - like so many great artists - was bipolar, which was called manic-depressive back then. Lithium was not yet used as a treatment in this country, and it would be decades before less dangerous treatments were developed. Bipolar disorder is still not curable.]


  1. Thank you Jeanne. --Kevin O'Neil

  2. I'm sorry for this loss-your loss. Without saying too much, I understand.