ArticleAn Enlivening Heritage: Reintroducing Robert Coles
“I have never been able to write negative, nasty reviews,” Coles told me, explaining that he instead declines invitations to review books about which he does not have much positive to say. “[Joseph Epstein] is onto something.”
Grappling with Life’s Mysteries
When it comes to his books, Coles writes with urgency because he knows that his remaining days are limited. He writes poignantly in Lives We Carry with Us that a failing Dorothy Day tried, but was unable, to “write what mattered most” to her. In his latest work, Coles does exactly that type of taking stock. In “Una Anciana,” when Domingo the husband says, “These days one never knows when the end will come. I know our time is soon up. But when I look at that mother horse and her child in the barn, or at my children and their children, I feel lucky to have been permitted for a while to be part of all this life here on earth,” one feels Coles’s awareness of his own mortality.
Coles develops this theme of gratitude more explicitly in Handing One Another Along, with writing from and about authors who faced their deaths with serenity and grace. In a lecture early in that book, he includes Raymond Carver’s poem “Gravy,” which, according to Coles, describes in many ways “his [Carver’s] last decade, a decade of blessedness and love that became possible for him” when Carver quit drinking and began his relationship with writer Tess Gallagher in 1978:
No other word will do. For that’s what it was. Gravy.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving, and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that, it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. “Don’t weep for me,”
he said to his friends. “I’m a lucky man.
I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure Gravy. And don’t forget it.”
Building on the theme of gratitude touched on by Domingo and Carver, the final chapter of Handing One Another Along contains Jane Kenyon’s poem “Otherwise,” which she wrote shortly before she died of leukemia at age forty-eight:
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.
“How does one live with such knowledge?” Coles asks. “How to pick up each day with enthusiasm and insistence and pride and yet know, remember what that poem tells us?”
Coles’s answer, it seems, lies in the words of a letter Henry James wrote to his nephew, William, that Coles includes in the final chapter of Handing One Another Along, and in the values by which Coles has oriented his personal and professional life: Be kind. Be brave. Be open. Be respectful. Be hard working. Be humble. Be honest. Be true.
It might be reasonable to expect that, having shared his life’s wisdom, Coles has no plans for more books. But that is not the case. Next on the docket: a return to the beginning of his career in medicine, when he cared for children with polio and other fatal conditions (Handing One Another Along contains a reference to the same period in Coles’s life). During the October lecture at Phillips Brooks House, he recounted how one of the children told him, “You look tired, Dr. Coles.” The suffering child’s compassionate gesture lives within the psychiatrist still and is prodding him to explore that territory.
Before that, though, there are bike rides to take, letters to write, and family members to visit. He said he considers his relationship with his wife and family his greatest accomplishment.
But when he has rested and readied himself, Robert Coles will sit back in his trusty chair. He will take out another pad of yellow lined paper. And, in the shadows of the people who have meant most to him and inspired these two books, he will begin to carry out the next, and what we hope is not the final, project of his extraordinarily rich, varied, and productive life.