The Ecphorizer

Dialogue Deferred
Gareth Penn

Issue #47 (July 1985)

I hadn't seen Ralph in five years. But then, he hadn't seen anything in ten. Ralph had juvenile-onset diabetes, and over the summer of 1975 he had lost his eyesight to what is known in the jargon of doctors as proliferative diabetic retinopathy. At work, I had just come across a paper in

He would conduct symphonies inside his head, or recite poetry.

a medical journal relating PDR to life expectancy. The conventional wisdom is that you have [quoteright]between nine and ten years from the time you go blind. I looked at the calendar and realized with a shock that it was going on ten years. There was a possibility that if I didn't go to see Ralph in Texas now, I might never have another opportunity. I put in for a week's vacation which conflicted with someone else's plans. I went to the company president and presented my life-expectancy argument. No soap. I had to take second choice, the week after.

Ralph and I had been friends since 1963, when we were in graduate school.  1967, he got the job at Austin and has been there ever since. He had come back to the Bay Area a few times in the first few years, and then I had taken up going to Texas about every other year, partly because it was becoming harder and harder for Ralph to travel. Not long after he went blind, he lost both his kidneys. Then, on his way to a dialysis appointment, he slipped and fell, breaking his pelvis and a thigh. The only place they had at Brackenridge Hospital for a blind, crippled dialysis patient was the ICU. Diabetics heal slowly. Ralph spent months in intensive care, without visitors, without books, without a radio, without a telephone, completely walled up inside himself, with only an occasional nurse to talk to.

He had the internal resources to get through things like that. He would conduct symphonies inside his head, or recite poetry. Or he would review conversational topics for future use with me and his many other friends. For my part, between trips to Texas, I developed the mental habit of pigeonholing jokes, stories, observations, and other conversational materials for use with Ralph. To a very large extent, my mental life over the last twenty-five years has consisted of a kind of deferred dialogue with my close friend.

By early 1985, I had five years worth of material and I had only five days in which to make use of it. Diane and I flew to Austin on the 11th of January, arriving in the middle of a snowstorm. If we had put off our trip another day, we might not have made it; for the next three days, South Central Texas was knee-deep in a strange white substance seldom seen in those parts.

For three days, we were, for all practical intents and purposes, completely snowbound at Ralph's. There was frost on the windows, icicles hanging ponderously from the eaves, white covering everything visible from the windows. During that time, Ralph and I both unloaded five years' worth of accumulated conversational material on each other. Ralph was frail-looking; his hands trembled and his gait was slow and uncertain; but his big booming theatrical voice and his hearty laughter belied his seeming physical weakness. On the fourth and fifth days, we were able to go out. As usual, I drove and Ralph gave directions. He always knew exactly where he was and how to get to the next place from there. He would have made a great kidnap victim. I told him so and I was rewarded with peals of laughter. I had been saving up that line since 1982 when it first occurred to me.

One of the things that we had to talk about was not so amusing. We had a mutual friend named Dave. I told Ralph a story about Dave and he told me one. I told him that some years back, when Dave was going through a divorce from his first wife, he had gone swimming at a beach near his home in Santa Monica. He had gone out too far from shore and had gotten into the grips of a current that was taking him out to sea. Dave fought it until he was exhausted, and when he was completely worn out, he decided just to give up and die. At this point, his life began to flash before his eyes. But since Dave, like us, had spent years and years in graduate school, his life was presented to him as a file of 3 by 5 cards. If his situation had not been terminal, he would have laughed. At the end of the file was a card with a newspaper clipping on it, from the Daily Bruin (Dave was teaching at UCLA at the time.) It reported on his death by drowning and it speculated that he had killed himself out of despondency over his divorce. That gave Dave the shot of adrenalin he needed to save himself. He was not going to give Fee the satisfaction of thinking that he had killed himself over her. He figured out how to use the current to return to the beach about a mile from where he had gone in and he just stopped fighting it and let it take him where he wanted to go.

That had happened about a dozen years ago, but Ralph had never heard about it from Dave. But he had seen Dave recently, when he was passing through on his way to L.A. from New Orleans. Dave told him that he had gotten into a lot of trouble with the law and was currently being prosecuted for a felony. Ralph was very anxious about Dave's situation and asked me to find out what I could when I got back to California, without letting Dave know that I was inquiring.

Diane and I left Austin on the 16th and then spent four days visiting in New Mexico. On the first working day after our return, I called the calendar clerk at Los Angeles Superior Court to find out about the possibility of an appearance in the criminal matter. She informed me that Dave was due to be sentenced the next day and gave me the name of the assistant DA who was prosecuting the case.

I waited until the afternoon of the next day, and called the assistant DA. He gave me the particulars about the sentencing and bristled when I expressed surprise that such a thing had happened to Dave. I apologized, saying that I hadn't meant to argue with him; it was just a shock to find something like that happening to someone you have known for a quarter-century.

As soon as he hung up, I dialed Ralph's home phone to give him the news. There was no answer, which was no surprise, since Ralph had classes to teach on Tuesdays. I called his department to leave a message. When I asked the departmental secretary to take a message for Ralph, she said,  guess you haven't heard. Dr. Read passed away last Saturday. It was so unexpected. He seemed to be in such good health."

When I got over the initial shock, I called Dave to tell him the news. What was shocking was that I had just taken leave of Ralph three days before he died. I had gone to Texas with the premonition that this might be the last conversation, and I had missed the end by seventy-two hours. And Ralph had seemed robust. For all his obvious frailty, he had no complaints. He was remodeling his house; he was living for the future. He was found by the workmen sitting in his favorite armchair with an open can of beer on the end table beside him. The radio was tuned to Austin's classical music station. It must have been swift and painless.

The obituaries in the Austin and university newspapers were lengthy and laudatory. Ralph had defied the usances of academe by getting tenure at Austin not on the basis of publication, but for teaching excellence. The only original writing of his own that he ever published was a cookbook for the blind (When the Cook Can't Look, Continuum, 1981.) He had won every teaching award they have in the state of Texas. When the cookbook came out, Ralph's department chairman presented it at a faculty meeting with the observation, "At long last — somebody in this department has written something useful!" Over the seventeen years that he taught at Austin, Ralph had become quite beloved of the student body. He was, in other words, a fixture on campus, just like the statue of Senator Hogg or the football stadium.

He will be very much missed in Texas. But all the people who knew him were changed to one extent or another by knowing, and to that extent, Ralph is still with them. For my part, I still think in terms of that future conversation I am going to have with him. I am still gathering anecdotes, magazine articles, jokes, observations and experiences to share with him, and they are still being filed away in the same set of mental pigeonholes that I have been using for this purpose since 1967. Ralph is dead and cremated, but he still lives on, not just in the memorial fellowship for needy students created by his estate, not just in the memories of those who knew him, but as an active force in the minds of people like me, as a living participant in a dialogue deferred. 

Puntaster GARETH PENN avers that "'dlm sum" is what you get when the batteries fall in your calculator, and "band aid" is a benefit concert for a failing rock group.

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