R.I.P. Fred Pfeil
He died between 3:00 and 3:30 this afternoon, almost a full day into an unrestful and machine-assisted "sleep" that he entered on Monday, after suffering a painful fall in the middle of Sunday night. I was with him in his hospital room less than an hour before he died, and since he seemed able to hear (though not to open his eyes or raise himself, much less talk), I did at least get to speak to him one final time. It bore no relation to "saying goodbye." Fred and I always talked about movies, and I was telling him that tonight I am screening one of his absolute favorites and mine, Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, after which I am assigning my students to read his own essay on the film, entitled "Terrence Malick's War Film Sutra: Meditating on The Thin Red Line," anthologized here. I told him that I was looking forward to returning to his hospital room to read him my students' responses to his essay and to the film we both love so much. I told him that a graduate-student advisee that I inherited from him when he got sick had just come down for a meeting last week, and that his project is exemplary and exciting, and something that Fred would be so proud of when he got to read it. And I told him that I was glad he had been able to spend Thanksgiving with his father and sisterhe was awake and fairly lively through Sunday eveningand that I had missed him these last few weeks and was eager to talk with him soon.
No one, at least none of the people who were already in his room when I arrived there today, seemed to think he had so very little time left, so I wasn't being false in looking forward to future conversations. In a lot of ways, I'm glad that I didn't know, since it stopped me from being maudlin and from unburdening my own sadness onto him as he was going. (I hope I wouldn't have done that anyway, but you just never know.) His expression did seem to change when I started talking and identified myself by name; that was the only sign that he really could hear me, and that he knew who I was and what I was saying, and it was such a subtle change that I hope I wasn't just projecting it.
I had to rush off at 2:15 to go teach my afternoon class, which stretches from 2:40 to 3:55. When I walked back into my department afterward, I ran into a colleague in the doorway, and she told me what had happened. I didn't even read the e-mail until just now. I went immediately to see two of the friendliest people in the department who have been here for the longest time: the administrative assistant and the current chair. I admire both women so much, and I know how much they loved Fred.
After talking with them, I came back to my office, which is really Fred's officeyou see, I was hired at Trinity to teach the classes Fred normally teaches, but not because he knew he was sick at the time (or at least he didn't tell me so, nor anyone else that I know of). He was going to be teaching in a special interdisciplinary lab on campus these next two years, and I was hired to teach the Film and American Literature courses that he usually offered in the department, even though he was initially hired years and years ago to teach Creative Writing (Fiction). He was a talented and polydextrous person. Fred was devastated by that final seizure in February only hours after he had called me to offer me my job, i.e., his job. When I had met him in the weeks beforeto interview for the position in December (at MLA, for you academic types) and to present a sample seminar on campus in Februaryhe was not only the picture of health, but he was so kind, affable, gentle, hilarious, and lavishly admired by his students that I instantly made up my mind to accept the job if it was offered to me, in order to be around him, and hopefully become more like him.
As it happened, I only ever saw him three more times: at lunch in late August (early September?), where he told me the last movie he'd seen in a theater was Batman Begins, which he thought was much too loud; in the middle of a rainstorm in late October, on his way to the campus bookstore to pick up some newly-arrived special orders (he didn't have a coat or an umbrella, and he only accepted mine when I drew him into a conversation about Ernst Lubitsch and Josef von Sternberg); and then, today.
I've shed a lot of tears in the last two hours, and I expect I'll cry some more tonight during the movie, thinking of why Fred loved it and of how immediate our friendship was when we discovered what a mutual passion it was. I tried to make three phone calls after I came back to my office (again, Fred's office) to be alone, and though I couldn't get through the first two times, bless my brother for being there and letting me talk. My head is full of thoughts, but not really full of memories; it couldn't be. I didn't know him that well. But almost never in my life have I known someone so little who elicited such profound love and admiration right on the spot, and it's been made pristinely clear from all of Fred's friends and colleagues at Trinity that my response to him, sublime though it was, was also quite common. He was a hero of so many people. All semester, while he's been sick, people have walked past my building, seen the light on in this second-floor office, and walked up and in, hoping against hope that Fred was here. A few of these disappointed visitorsI always say, as they try to mask their disappointment, "Don't worry, I feel just the same way!"have stayed in my office to tell me about how they knew Fred and all the things he did for them: as a teacher, an award-winning local peace activist, a friend, an advisor, a colleague, a kind editor, a gleeful conspirator in sweet-tooth indulgences.
I don't know what to think about having spoken with him mere hours before the catastrophic and unpredicted onset of his illness, and then again less than an hour before his well-prepared-for but still unpredicted moment of letting go. I will never know what to think about this. The sentimentalist in me, leaning on coincidence but also on some fingerfuls of friendly confidence he offered me last winter, wants to believe that Fred was proud to have me standing in his professional shoes, though only temporarily, and nowhere near to filling them. He always talked to me with the tone of a mentor, even when we were too slimly acquainted for that to make sense, even though I felt the same way about him just as swiftly. Scores and scores, hundreds of people at Trinity and in Hartford were closer to Fred than I was, and I trust they all have intimate memories of how special he was, and how special he made them feel when he was with them. My heart is with all those people right now even more than it's with myself. And I wonder so much, with such acute concentrationI'm almost embarrassed by the questions, and by their involuntary forcewhere Fred has gone, what has become of him, what he is right now.
But I admit, my heart is heavy and full for myself right now. I'm too sad, momentarily, to really take comfort in what a loving, supportive hand he always held out to me, but I know I'll take comfort in this later. I miss my friend, I wanted to know him better. He was young, no more than 60, if he was that. I'm sitting in his office, surrounded by his booksthose he wrote, and those many more that he owned and read and annotated. I see little notes that he scribbled to himself and forgot, an old turtle shell that has always sat on the corner of this desk, even after he cleared out his personal mementos so that I could better use the space. He left teabags and microwavable soups, stashed in a bottom drawer, a snapshot of an otter enjoying the water, a poster-sized print of an artist's rendering of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Taped to the wall is a collection of undated Gallup Poll figures from early in the Second Gulf War, indicating the degree of opposition to the war registered in public surveys in dozens of countries: Albania 89% against, Argentina 87%, Australia 83%...
His gloves are in a drawer. His phone line, split off from mine, just rang. (Of course I didn't answer.)
I miss you, Fred!
(Thanks, everybody for listening.)