I knew him first as a presence: an unbearded Santa Claus with thin lips, glasses, and a good pate of gray hair parted on the side. He could tell funny stories until his audience was slap-laugh-crying. I remember him imitating himself making an important presentation after a dentist’s appointment. His mouth was numb, his hearing aids misplaced, and his contacts not quite centered. He hammed it up. “Ah eeh to teh ooh bout Bark Taiin.” (“I’m here to tell you about Mark Twain.”) I wish somebody had recorded it.
I had known him in a more serious setting. He was my stake president when I went to be interviewed for my temple recommend after my divorce. It was a daunting prospect, this interview. How could I, who had failed in the most important of all earthly undertakings, talk about things like worthiness? Could I do anything right? I had been so nervous about asking people to write letters of recommendation for me to enter the Master’s program at BYU that finally my mother approached our friend, Tom Rogers, and told him I was too nervous to ask him myself. Tom was gracious, and wrote the letter.
But this—sitting before Richard Cracroft, this gentle, funny man, and answering the interview questions—made me tremble. Surely this particular Santa Claus could announce with a smile that I would not be getting any presents this Christmas—or ever. I didn’t deserve them.
He began the interview, and I answered all questions honestly. He got to the last one: “Do you consider yourself worthy in every way to enter the temple?”
My eyes teared and I shook my head. “No,” I said.
He paused. Was he praying? I was looking down, so I don’t know.
“Margaret,” he said, “you need the blessings of the temple.” And he signed it.
Our next significant interaction was at an English department dinner. He was the college dean.
Three years earlier, Bruce Young had been hired on provisional status as an English professor. He was single, and everyone understood that he would need to be married to keep his position. For whatever reasons, BYU had an unspoken policy about single professors back then. The department chairman had sent him a birthday note: “Bruce—please get married! We want to keep you!”
To him, it felt like the chairman was saying, “You can have this great job—if you’ll just fly to the moon.”
And then I was there, on the front row of his class and then smack dab in the center of his life. Bruce said it was like I had shown up at his door and announced, “I have a rocket out back. Would you like to go to the moon?”
We let people know we were engaged before the department dinner.
Richard approached me afterwards, shaking his head genially. “Margaret, bless you. What a sacrifice you’re making! Oh, we appreciate this. Your parents have been loyal to the English department, but this—this is such a huge, wonderful thing you’re doing. Thank you!” And then he smiled. I knew I was in his good graces.
As I began my career as a writer, he reviewed several of my books. At one point, Bruce and I took him a book which the publisher had failed to send him, and chatted with him and his wife in their living room. They were having some challenges with their children, something I couldn’t quite comprehend then, but understand well now. I asked about a relative of mine who had also been an LDS author, but who had left the Church. Richard had known him well. “I was so judgmental,” he said. “I thought I knew everything back then. So, so judgmental!”
Not long after, he and I had a slight conflict when I misunderstood a review he had written for the Association for Mormon Letters. I critiqued what he had said, and he took me to task, pointing out harshly where I had gone wrong. I apologized, and sent him a private note, telling him how much he had meant to me in my several maturings, how his words of hope and comfort during that temple recommend interview had bolstered me through unexpected moments.
His reply was sweet, though I remember only one phrase of it: “Thank you for your gentling words.”
Gentling. What an interesting modifier! To gentle. To move one to gentleness. Gentle as a verb. It is now the word I associate most personally with him. I don’t know if anyone else uses it.
May I gentle you into peace before we continue this discussion? Please use gentling phrases with me so I don’t forget myself. Gentle this friendship so that we both honor it. Go gentle into that good night.
I knew Richard finally as a patient at Davita Dialysis, where my father has also been going for over five years. Richard managed to maintain that distinctive smile while the machine and its ganglia of tubes cleaned his blood. At dialysis, we hear the whir of all the machines, the occasional beep like a backing truck when someone’s blood pressure gets too low, whispered conversations, quiet news shows or Spanish telenovelas. While I was visiting with him once, another friend approached and said, “Richard! What are you doing these days?” He gave a wry chuckle and said, “Well, mostly I’m working on the long process of dying.” I could imagine Mark Twain, the author Richard knew so well, saying that exact thing.
He coded in a dialysis chair a week ago, and was taken to the E.R., where he was pronounced dead. I learned that his wife’s cancer had returned, and that Richard had decided that if she went first, he would discontinue dialysis.
He did not have to make that last choice.
I think of the two of them as I saw them in their condo or in dialysis, old and together. I had only hints of Richard at various points in his life. I know he considered me a friend, though not a close one. I saw him as a professor, a humorist, a theologian, a lover of beauty, one willing to learn and to grow. I saw him as a merciful man, though I suspect he learned mercy in some merciless moments. I know he loved his wife. By those last years, they had settled into each other, gentled each other, chosen each other in new ways with every miracle or tragedy they met—and they met several.
I think of Twain’s The Diary of Adam and Eve, and can imagine Richard reciting the whole thing. The opening scene shows Adam and Eve as childish, like kindergartners at recess, trying to comprehend the differences between boys and girls and everything else that comes in the human package:
Dear Diary. This new creature with the long hair is a good deal in the way. It is always hanging around and following me about. I don’t like this: I am not used to company. I wish it would stay with the other animals. (To himself) Cloudy today, wind in the east, think we shall have rain. We? Where did I get that word? I remember now, the other creature uses it.
As they explore the garden, they disagree at times. Adam describes his companion doing strange things:
She fell in the pond yesterday when she was looking at herself in it, which she is always doing. She nearly strangled, which made her feel sorry for the creatures which live there, which she calls “fish”. She continues to fasten names on to things which don’t need them, and don’t come when they are called by them. Anyway, she got a lot of them out and brought them in last night, and put them in my bed to keep warm, but I have noticed them now and then all day and I don’t see that they are any happier than they were before, only quieter. When night comes I shall put them outdoors. I will not sleep with them again, for I find them clammy and unpleasant to lie among.
And through it all, through temptation, expulsion from the garden, through heartbreak and healing, they hardly realize how close they are growing to one another. Eve says near the end:
It is my prayer that we may pass from this life together. But if one of us must go first, it is my prayer that it shall be I; for he is strong, I am weak, I am not so necessary to him as he is to me. Life without him would not be life; how could I endure it?
Of course, she has underestimated Adam, who loves her more than she suspects:
After all these years, I see that I was mistaken about Eve in the beginning; it is better to live outside the Garden with her than inside it without her. At first I thought she talked too much; but now I should be sorry to have that voice fall silent and pass out of my life. Blessed be the apple that brought us near together and taught me to know the goodness of her heart and the sweetness of her spirit! Now that she is gone, I know one thing; wheresoever she was, there was Eden.
I didn’t tell my mother that Richard had died. She called me the next day. “Did you hear? Richard Cracroft died. He died in dialysis.”
I could tell she had been crying.