A Private Vigil

This year, I’ll be posting some creative non-fiction pieces here on the blog at times. Names in this one have been changed, but otherwise represent facts.–Ty

***

Dr. Harrison was dead.

The legendary professor, a part of my alma mater’s community for decades, had died a mere few weeks into the first school year following his retirement. A professor for almost 50 years, he’d been an ex-professor for little less than four months before shuffling off this mortal coil. Or, in his case, he probably rode a ten-speed bicycle, as he was seen doing so often in life.

It would be obscene to claim that I was in mourning. For though I did know the man, having taken two of his courses, (the second of which turned out to be the final in his long career), I didn’t enjoy a personal relationship with him of any depth.

Oh, I was gratified to learn that the gruff intellectual giant had regularly read my editorials in the campus newspaper. I smiled a bit in class the few times he directed his bone-dry humor right at me. Yet I would never claim to have been as close to him as many of my fellow students, particularly those in this history department had been. Second of course to the man’s family, it was those students that suffered the greatest personal loss at Dr. Harrison’s death, and I’ll not take that from them.

Still, I was affected by his dying. The diminutive, sandals-wearing, bike-riding academic icon with the ever so slight Carolinian accent had, in more than one instance, indicated in his subtle ways that while he may not know much about who I was, he appreciated what I was. (A leftist “radical” much like himself, he indicated in class one day.)

Red-faced and puffy-eyed former students of his were a common sight on campus in the day or two after the news broke in mid-September. Word began to spread of an impromptu memorial for the late professor, to be held on the mall either that first night, or the following night. All were welcome.

I gave it strong consideration. His lectures, at times far too long and too dense for my personal taste had nonetheless been a part of my college education, and a recent one at that. I asked myself whether or not this truth, coupled with the few personal acknowledgments he’d shown me would oblige me to attend the gathering. In the end, I decided it would not, and I didn’t go.

Not to the official vigil, anyway.

 

Near the center of my alma mater’s campus, there was a building, with a small balcony on the front façade. Below it, the artisan bricks of the walkway, leading to this building, and several others on the mall. Not long after news of Dr. Harrison broke, I was on one of my frequent middle of the night walks when I found myself approaching this building from the side at around 1:30 in the morning.

An unfamiliar shimmer darted in and out of my sight through some bushes across from the building as I walked. I rounded the small corner to investigate this, and found what was left of a small, unmanned candle, reduced to little more than a flickering wick in a spreading puddle of wax. Scores of other abandoned votives, clinging to life hours after being left by there former owners.

Draped over the balcony in front of them was a large drawing of a ten-speed bicycle, a distinctive helmet hanging on the handlebars of same.

I was now flanked by the components of the Dr. Harrison memorial ceremony. A profound scene to simply stumble upon as I had. Yet both the simple but wholly appropriate banner, and the haphazard rows of tribute candles encrusted into the bricks of the walkway were enhanced by the utter silence.

My college, a bit of a party school, wasn’t known for its monastic quiet at night, though during the week things were much more peaceful than on weekends. Sometimes, such as on this night, there’d be no buzzing of college police golf carts. No fruitless hollering. No car horns from the nearby highway. No huffing of leashed townie dogs being walked at odd hours. Just silence.

I found it somehow both eerie and comforting.

For a moment I stood, hands in pockets, watching the candles burn further away into soundless oblivion. I wondered if the emotion of the gathering, and the profundity of its remnants could somehow attract the attention of the good professor, wherever he was. I determined that even if they could, he’d likely be off lecturing somewhere, or riding a bike through eternity instead. He’d given all he needed to give to this place, I thought.

Once my lack of movement began to chill me in the autumn air, I looked up at the banner and nodded. Then I started off back to my dorm, my private vigil complete.

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