Wayne Michael DeHart (July, 1997, with July, 2021 edits)
What did Dickens really know about the best of times?
He wasn’t there when I shared Rolos and raindrops, lemonade and laughter, with high-spirited Lisa of auburn hair and evergreen eyes and silken skin, of winsome winks and guilty grins and “love you too”s.
He wasn’t there through ice cream days on Boston Common and campfire nights in New Hampshire forests of pine and balsam and birch, where lurking hugs and lightning bugs danced around the Muse.
And he was never there when fireworks shows, birthday candles and Christmas lights brightened her wondrous world, when county fairs and teddy bears spread her smile from here to there, or in tender times when magic tricks and pick-up sticks chased away her blues.
And what did he know about the worst of times?
He wasn’t there when they told me the reason for her blinding headaches and her dizzy spells and of the eroding effects we would come to know too soon and too well from a miserable, merciless disease.
He wasn’t there that misty Easter morning when a fading Lisa smiled weakly at the pink and yellow marshmallow peeps surrounding her on the colorful down comforter, waved a quiet farewell to the new giant plush rabbit watching over her from a bedside chair, and mouthed an unprompted “love you too” to me one last time before closing her eyes to find what no one sees.
And he was never there those seven weeks when that sad blue bunny and I came to her each day at mourning time to nurse and nurture the withering flowers that fought for life above her, back home in the indifferent shadows of two Bucks County weeping willow trees.
“You need to get on with your own life”, you told me.
“The sun will still come up tomorrow”, he told me.
“She’s gone to a better place, to be with her mom”, she told me.
“She’s looking over your shoulder this very minute”, they told me.
The only person looking over my shoulder is me, and when I do all I see is darkness and disarray and a maze of paths that I’ve too often taken – paths that lead everywhere and nowhere, but never somewhere.
Not long after I wrote the opening lines, I gave the neglected bunny to the neighbor’s kid in Doylestown. Those flowers at her grave are themselves now buried by nature’s hand. I regret that I don’t get there as often as I did at first. “As often?” How about hardly at all. What does that say about me? Seems like there’s a cold rain almost every day, even when there isn’t. Perception rules reality when the world has you on your back.
I am reminded of the song “A Little Fall of Rain” from the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel, Les Misérables, offered by a dying Éponine to the one she unrequitedly loves:
“Don’t you fret, M’sieur,
I don’t feel any pain,
A little fall of rain
Can hardly hurt me now.
You’re here, that’s all I really need to know.
And you will keep me safe.
And you will keep me close.
And rain will make the flowers grow.”
I don’t hear Éponine singing to Marius; I hear a sad, sweet Lisa singing on-key to the guy who was there for her, guided her, embraced the enchantment of the earth with her, through those last four roller coaster years. Somehow she knows he now wistfully wanders through the raindrops he once welcomed, not really seeing them or feeling their energy, as he had when he centered they and them, two spunky inseparables through the best and worst of times. This prolonged state of melancholy has to stop. Must stop. Because the rain does in fact nourish the resilient blooms, the ones that she talked to when no one was looking.
The insight of the innocent often slides past the purview of the myopic, seasoned skeptic. The slings and arrows miss their target, until they don’t. Through it all, the kindhearted kid held the keys, and I just held the door.
The storied sandman who visited the girl at just the right time every evening departed with her. I wrestle the darkness as I await the promise of dawn. Tonight, I’m trying to read myself to sleep with the voluminous book of poetry a knowing friend gave to me when Lisa passed. A wide variety of poets, among the most eminent in verse, and their most notable works can be found between its covers. I really do need to sleep, yet turn to the entries of Robert Frost, an earnest laureate for the masses, a champion of the commoner in each of us. Born in California, he thrived in his new surroundings after his remaining family moved to Massachusetts when he was only eleven, upon the death of his dad from a different merciless disease. Though his breakthrough as a poet came in his London years, he spent most of his adult life residing, farming the fields, roaming the woods, writing prolifically, and teaching in rural areas of New Hampshire and Vermont. Surely he too once experienced walking through Boston Common and the Granite State forests of pine and balsam and birch – just as Lisa did, with me, before the doctor broke the news that broke my heart.
“When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.”
Boy? The poet knew not the likes of one lively Lisa girl.
I fell asleep to the familiar, oft-quoted closing line, “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.” I’ve always liked that. It reminds me of . . . something.
Seven months have passed since Lisa journeyed off and left me behind. The holidays are nigh and I know you will miss her entrance, though not nearly as much as I will. I mean, she was a part of your life too, wasn’t she? She was real to you, she touched your cheek, your hands, your heart, your very being.
You probably knew her by another name. Or too soon will.
I should have felt your hurt back then.
But I didn’t know.
I didn’t understand.
After all, you were just somebody else.
If it’s not too late . . . I’m sorry for your loss.
I have long since set Dickens aside and taken comfort in the inspirational offerings of his countryman William Wordsworth, a true wordsmith with an ever-so-fitting name, who had a Frost-like appreciation of nature and a firm grasp of the depth and fragility of the human spirit. That same book of poetry I mentioned earlier contained a Wordsworth poem I was already familiar with and had been since my very early teens: “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”. I’d like to say it was my academic nature and intellectual curiosity that familiarized me with the following lines, but it was actually a movie that wandered into town – “Splendor in the Grass”.
“What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now forever, taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower:
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind:”
There are exactly 200 additional lines in the Lake District Romanticist’s classic poem, but these were the words heard whole or in part on three different occasions in that Natalie Wood-Warren Beatty movie. They were emphasized each time, luring a 13/14-year old boy in New Hampshire into searching the back shelves of Gale Memorial Library for the words that came before and the words that came after those I had heard at the Colonial Theater. I’ve since read them many times over. I recited the lines quoted here from memory to maybe 25 girls in my youth, to maybe 25 people I met in my traveling twenties, and dozens more in a variety of circumstances in the decades that followed. But I failed to recite them to the enthralling Miss Lisa, the young girl who really mattered, whether she would have understood them or not.
However, I can tell you that I did in fact read her a different Wordsworth poem one crisp nightfall as she curled up under the covers in her last Springtime. She delighted in hearing “Daffodils” (“I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”) because this dear girl loved the sight and smell of flowers of every kind. I wish I had memorized that one and recited it, so I could have watched those evergreen eyes grow wider still as each word and image lingered lazily over her pillows, rather than lifting my own eyes from the page to hers as often as I could without fumbling the flow the poet laid down. I missed so many chances. I missed making so many memories. I missed them because my time with her was destined to be infinite and endless. I convinced myself that, long after my own gravestone had gone green with mold and mildew, she would think of me and come by on my birthday with her grandchildren, bringing untrimmed purple lilacs, unspoken pep talks and maybe an unopened roll of Rolos to toast my memory. I took that liberty because I perceived that nine-year-old kids, both real and imagined, were indestructible and unbreakable small humans who would become all-knowing, remain ever-present, and prove to be everlasting. The untimely loss of Lisa girl brought reality to my doorstep.
A very wise woman who witnessed my decline told me that I would reclaim and retain my intended place in the universe if I just kept watching the mirror. “When the eyes finally meet yours, you’ll know you’re ready.” She was right, of course. They did, and I was. Ready, that is.
(Though you, the reader, have committed no crime here, a long sentence awaits you. Please indulge me in my egregious affront to good grammar, but since it was written in real time as a single, uninterrupted thought in 1997, to do otherwise would be to betray the freewheeling spirit of the girl with the auburn hair.)
Ready to rewind, refocus and rededicate myself to preserving the vivid memory of Lisa’s vivacious visage, attached to the hidden treasure back there under the willows in Bucks County, but personified here, now, in the fresh, clean air that I breathe in deeply as I linger on the resurgent verdant growth of my front lawn in serene silence awaiting the soft afterglow of the sudden hard summer rain and search the sky for the last wave of prismatic droplets which will dance the shower’s celestial finale with a rousing two-step of refraction and revelry that spins below gilded clouds and the glistening glint of an emerging sun as the water vessels paint the horizon in the seven colors of the visible spectrum that band together and tug harmoniously at the delicate strings of doubt and despair that still knot my mind and stomach but which fray and unravel in the humbling presence of the fleeting but rapturous arch that always leads to the storybook gold as it shimmers and glimmers, gleams and glitters, into a brilliant shining reflection in the sparkling green eyes of a laughing Lisa who fills my lungs and surges through my veins each time I inhale her memory and savor the sweetness of moments past and behold a vibrant vision of the refreshing rascal reaching for a ride on a leaning white-barked sapling in the mossy woods of New Hampshire as she gives me one of those whimsical, winsome winks, then smiles, reminding me that one could do worse than be a swinger of birches – or one who dances with the daffodils – in this world, or in the next.
Soon, I’ll close my own eyes, listen for your “love you too”, and find, as you have, what no one sees.
An excellent reading:
The man himself:
Another excellent reading: