Elegy for a Friend
“What does it take to write a book?” I asked. It was the Summer of 2015 and I had just moved in to the Brookline basement of 27 Monmouth Court a few weeks prior. I felt obliged and curious to ask given that one of the few things I knew about the man sitting across from me was that he was the author of eighteen books. There was a long pause as Stanley looked away, considered, sighed, and then looked back at me. I waited, eager, and, truly interested in what this lauded, credentialed, awarded, and famous philosopher would say. “Patience” replied Stanley, and promptly took a long sip of red wine.
I never attended a course taught by Professor Cavell or read a book authored by Dr. Cavell or heard a musical work composed by Cavell, the Juilliard trained musician; so it may border on the offensive to the many students, writers, musicians, friends and family of Stanley that I have undertaken to write this humble tribute to an exceptional man. But, as a tenant-cook-caretaker, I got to know Stanley in such a different capacity than most people. And in knowing him, I grew to love him dearly the two short years I was blessed to be in his company.
Over those two years we spent a lot of time sitting at his dining room table, Stanley with his evening glass of wine, me with my iPhone where I could jot down exact phrases that Stanley would say during our conversations. “I hope the right sort of man is in love with you” Stanley would interject from time to time. I laughed out loud during these oft-repeated sessions in which Stanley would probe into my love life. In hindsight, we probably looked like an odd pair. At first glance, it wouldn’t appear that we had much in common: Stanley, an 89-year-old, Jewish, married man with children and grandchildren not to mention a distinguished philosophy professor with numerous degrees (official and honorary) and…me, a 22 year old, Christian, single, African-American woman from Arkansas just trying to finish a master’s degree. But I quickly discovered that aesthetics aside, Stanley was, in the words of Lucy Maud Montgomery, a 'kindred spirit' and a more beautiful spirit I have rarely encountered. Two weeks before I became a Monmouth Court resident, I spoke on the phone with Cathleen and she began to give me a little of Stanley’s history and describe his personality. “He is one of nature’s true gentleman” Cathleen stated simply. Her description would bear out perfectly during our time together.
That time mostly consisted of ostensibly unremarkable activities. We would chat while I prepared dinner. Stanley would often provide live entertainment by playing his favorite selections from the American Songbook on the piano. Sometimes we would watch jeopardy in the living room and Stanley would congratulate Cathleen and I each time we got a correct answer. However, amid the quotidian happenings where our lives intersected, I learned a great deal from Stanley Cavell. Not Cavell, the professor, the musician, the author, or any of the other titles needed to compartmentalize his enormous gifts. The person I learned from was quite simply and quite profoundly Stanley, the man.
Stanley taught me about tenderness. Tenderness is not often lauded in contemporary relationships. We go in search of love, passion, respect; all noble and good in their own right but tenderness seems to have lost some valuable ground. It is tenderness that I heard whenever Stanley talked about his wife, Cathleen (or to him, Cat or Cath). There was a gentle and earnest tone in his voice that indicated the depth of his affection and the constant joy he derived from being in her presence even after five decades of marriage. “I love you madly” I would hear him say as he insisted on walking her the 20 or so feet to the front door brushing off her insistence that he not trouble himself with getting up. “I miss you like fire” he would fervently whisper into the telephone receiver when Cathleen was away on a trip. That tender delighting in another human being the way Stanley did in Cathleen was beautiful to witness and I think, now, critical to experience.
Stanley taught me not to hesitate in living. During our evening conversations, he quizzed me on the details of my life always especially curious about what my plans were academically and always so eager that I should be on a “smooth path”. For someone who experienced first hand the Great Depression, WWII, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Vietnam War, it is understandable why Stanley was always so concerned that everyone around him was on a “smooth path”. Not that it was common to hear Stanley complain or bemoan the challenges of his life; in fact, it was quite the reverse. “I’ve been lucky that things have gone easy for me” he would tell me; usually after reminding me that it only cost $18 to register for classes at Berkeley when he attended (or was it $25?). He continually encouraged me to keep making my way in the world, less concerned about how that manifested itself and more concerned that I found my work interesting, engaging, and fulfilling.
Perhaps the best lesson I learned from Stanley is one that I only began to appreciate a couple of weeks after his funeral. Stanley taught me, showed me what it looks like to live a life of purpose right until the end of your life. Most people would look at an 91-year-old retired professor and say “well-done; you lived an extraordinary life; now, relax and enjoy what is left of it"; limiting their expectations for what someone with his age and perceived handicaps could really contribute to the world. But every day, Stanley continued to engage and encourage those around him. He retained an awareness of the needs and concerns of other people and an unfailing ability to listen intently no matter the speaker or the subject. He infused such genuine concern into the words "how are you?" and "are you okay?" that his listener was compelled to give an honest response. He had a wonderful sense of humor which he gifted to everyone and he took such pleasure in the small wonders of his life; a well-prepared meal, a favorite piece on the radio, rewatching an old film or going to see a new one.
Mostly, he found joy in being with others. "There's still beauty in the world" Stanley would declare nearly every time he saw me (and regardless of my actual appearance). No matter how many times I heard it, I smiled. And though my smile is now tinged with sadness, I can echo Stanley and say that despite everything, there is still beauty in the world and my world was made more beautiful because Stanley Cavell was in it.