I shall not die of a cold. I shall die of having lived.
After arriving home, Father Latour went at once to bed. During the night he slept badly and felt feverish. He called none of his household, but arose at the usual hour before dawn and went into the chapel for his devotions. While he was at prayer, he was seized with a chill. He made his way to the kitchen, and his old cook, Fructosa, alarmed at once, put him to bed and gave him brandy. This chill left him feverish, and he developed a distressing cough.
After keeping quietly to his bed for a few days, the Bishop called young Bernard to him one morning and said:
“Bernard, you will ride into Santa Fe to-day and see the Archbishop for me. Ask him whether it will be quite convenient if I return to occupy my study in his house for a short time. Je voudrais mourir a Santa Fe.”
“I will go at once, Father. But you should not be discouraged; one does not die of a cold.”
The old man smiled. “I shall not die of a cold, my son. I shall die of having lived.”
Last night I went scouting through one of those big books of quotations, starting with the author of a quote I’d seen on Twitter, wandering down the alphabet to Willa Cather. She had a vaguely familiar appeal, so I looked further. Once again, I had bumped into an author I read somewhere between tweens and twenties, who lived in and wrote about a time my grandparents may have heard about from their own grandparents – an eye-witness chain of evidence, anchoring my blood and my country into personal history.
Where did this fascination come from? I trace it back to when I was eight, and the deaths of my longest-lived great grandparents. They were born in the late 1880’s, which meant their eyes could have seen someone who had seen the Englishman Charles Darwin, and they certainly had elders who knew first-hand the effects of the American Civil War — or the Mexican–American War, after which Mexico ceded what is now the American Southwest. I can spout historical details now, but, to my eight-year-old perspective, anyone alive then had seen unimaginable changes within their life spans.
I wanted to hold onto my great grandparents until I was old enough to understand. Twenty years later, as my grandparents left us, I felt the same way – I wished I could extract their life experience and boil it down into stories that would help us understand each other, forever. Thirty years later I understood that wanting the stories is not enough; the right person, at the right time, has to know to ask the right sorts of questions and then tie together the answers.
Storytellers don’t have to depend on the words of one set of relatives: they can freely serve up flavors of their own understanding, which may or may not have drawbacks. I think this Amazon reader review of Death Comes for the Archbishop is interesting.
After reading with fascination the prior forty-plus reviews, they would appear to fall into three categories: juveniles who were forced to read the book for school, giving the book the lowest possible ratings. PC-types who judge both the writing of the book and the actions and beliefs of the characters by today’s standards–such smug intolerance! Thirdly, those who love literature for its own sake, belonging to the community that has made this one of the classics in American writing.J. Keistler
I’m in the “literature for its own sake” camp. Every story is a piece of time.
Willa Cather is best known for writing about the time of her grandparents’ youth through to the years of her own young adulthood – the years when America had pioneers on a Western frontier, and just beyond. The atmosphere of the land becomes part of her characters – is this what happened to Americans, as we came into our own?
Cather’s nostalgic portrait of the land contrasts with her characters’ mortality, fallibility and determination. Sometimes they die tragically, sometimes they find grace. “Je voudrais mourir a Santa Fe,” says the old priest. “I would like to die in Santa Fe.” He has found peace with being of Santa Fe, instead of living in his native France.