I started working for Wesley in 1980 when he was 71 years old. He needed new kitchen outlets and a new doorbell. He was a professor of education, retired. Walking by my truck, he spotted on the dashboard a book of poetry by W.H. Auden. "Well, well," he said. "Do you like Auden?"
"Sometimes," I said.
"Stop all the clocks," he said.
I must have looked puzzled.
"That's one of his poems," he said.
There was a playfulness about him. Later I learned that Wesley began his career teaching high school civics and English. You somehow felt he wanted to bring out the best in you. Formal but friendly, rigorous but generous, knowledgeable but open-minded, he was the teacher we all wish we had had.
After he paid me by check, as I was leaving, his wife Eleanor stuffed a five dollar bill in my hand.
In 1991 Eleanor called me to their house. Wesley was ill, and she wanted me to put wheels under their bed. I don't know why. I didn't ask. I'd like to imagine a happy couple frolicking on a rolling bed, but I'm sure the reason was more grim. Wesley was now 82 years old, and from the sound of his cough you knew he was dying.
Then on this day in 1993 I get a call from Eleanor: "We'd like you to take the wheels off the bed." Again, I don't ask why. Their house now looks more like a medical facility than a home. Eleanor and Wesley both seem cheerful and sharp-minded, though as Eleanor says, "There's been a lot of stress." Wesley has to stop for breath, wheezing ineffectively, after taking a step. Eleanor now uses a cane.
"I'd like you to build a window box," Eleanor says. "Then Wesley could look out and see flowers."
We make plans. I remove the bed wheels and don't charge for the labor.
That night, Eleanor calls. "I guess we won't need the window box."
"I'm so sorry."
"It isn't over yet."
In fact, it wasn't over for another three years. But I never saw them again.
Some people, though you meet them only briefly, touch you with a lasting spirit.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,That second line is so awful, I assume the poem is a joke. But serious people quote it all the time. Somewhere, I imagine, Wesley is laughing. Perhaps Auden is, too.
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Those wheels remain in my basement. They are four inches in diameter, heavy-duty, and colored a jolly bright red. I don't know what to do with them. Maybe when I'm 82 and my wife is 81, I'll put those wondrous wheels on our bed, and we'll roll into the waiting night.