Letter of Condolence I Never Wrote, and Should Have by Daniel N. White

by Daniel N. White
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad
April 3, 2010

Clif Grubbs was an economics professor of mine out at UT in my days there, more than two decades ago now. I took an intermediate economics course from him, don’t remember if it was micro or macro, those details are now lost to memory. What isn’t lost to my memory is what an outstanding teacher Clif was, how he kept the class somewhere between mesmerized and spellbound the entire hour, lecturing on economics, and how skilfully he brought the fairly dry and technical material to animated and useful life with his lectures. I wasn’t his only fan–Bill Moyers, who was a student of his in the late 50’s, did one of his Bill Moyers Reports shows on Clif in the early ’80’s on him entitled “The Volcanic Professor”, and in it treated Clif with a mixture of admiration and affection, attitudes that most all his students had towards him.

I took Clif’s course in the late ’70’s, and at that time Clif the volcanic professor spent many a time fulminating about how hard his daughter Suzanne was having it at the US Naval Academy. She was in the first class at the Academies that had women in them, and the women were having a very hard time of things on account of institutional and individual sexism and stupidity and so forth. Clif was hurting for her to succeed there–Suzanne had always wanted to be a jet pilot and an astronaut–and Clif who’d been a Marine during Deuce and Korea and had (in part–nobody who was leg infantry in war escapes the night terrors) proud memories of his military service, and was obviously pleased to see Suzanne following in part in his footsteps. Clif was also very worried that she’d get sick of the harassment and quit, and Clif, loving and proud father that he was, didn’t want Suzanne to fail at something that she wanted badly.

I was fed up with UT and being a student and dropped out for a while after that semester. For no particularly good reason, I came back to finish up my degree a couple of years later–gave up a good paying job I mostly liked at the time to do that. That was dumb. Didn’t like school any much better this go-round, but was close enough to my degree to where I couldn’t quit. One semester I had this one class–have no earthly recollection now of what it was–that was in the same classroom that Clif taught in the period before. Clif generally ran late getting out of class, and big burly Clif was always in a big physical hurry to get out. But one day I stopped him, called out to him from my desk in the back row, and told him that I’d been a student of his a couple of years earlier and had remembered him talking about his daughter at Annapolis and how hard she was having it and how did things turn out and what was she doing?

Clif’s manner and mood changed instantly. He light up with pleasure and trotted back to me and grabbed my arm and sat down next to me and animatedly, with great pride and pleasure, told me about how Suzanne had graduated successfully and gone into pilot training and was flying out in the Mediterranean, a utility pilot flying mail and supplies out to the carriers, and that she was liking it, and she was planning on putting in for astronaut training in a couple of years like she’d wanted to all her life. Clif was as pleased as could be to talk about his daughter, and every atom of his body shone with pride and love for her in a way I can ever hardly recall seeing except maybe from parents in the first moments after childbirth, when they see their new life for the very first time. It was a real treat to see a love that strong, and be that close to it for a bit even at secondhand remove. Clif got up and left, just before my instructor started his lecture. I never talked to Clif again, and don’t think I ever saw him again after that semester.

Couple of years later I read in the Austin paper that Suzanne had gone missing and dead on a routine flight in the Mediterranean. Flight never showed up, lost at sea, no explanation, no body, just gone, for good. Third or fourth hand I heard that Clif was really crushed, and was holed up and reclusive and acting like an old sick dog holed up under the porch to get well or die there. Folks were most concerned for him as hard as he was taking it. I should have sent a condolence note, and to this day regret not doing so. Biggest part of why I didn’t was I just didn’t realize that I could, and should, even though I was just some anonymous student in the crowds he’d taught along the way. I was in my mid-20’s by then, but I don’t know that socially and emotionally I wasn’t still running half a dozen years retarded, like I’d been most of my life since adolescence hit. That’s part of it, but hell I’d bet cash money that not a single ex-student of his bothered to send a condolence card either, and my not doing so just made me the same as everyone else in this country of ours these days. Same sort of thoughtless and lame, dammit. We, for whatever non-reasons we have, don’t bother with most social niceties like condolence letters much anymore. Maybe they aren’t as important as they once were and not following them isn’t that socially stigmatizing as was in the past days of more formal manners. Another big part of it was just simply that when I went to college it just never occurred to me that I could socialize any with professors, that my company or person was anything that those distant old people would have any interest in. I just didn’t realize that they were people too, and that I had enough in me of value and interest to be in their world if I just made the effort. I’ve wondered how many college students think like I did then; I’d bet most do. Wish someone had clued me into this fact before I was gone from UT, and the opportunity gone.

So Clif eventually came out from under the porch, and went back to teaching, and then his wife divorced him, which crushed him as he loved her deeply and had thought his family the center of his existence, but then suddenly that was gone too. Can’t take sides in most any divorce I’ve ever seen; Clif couldn’t have been an easy person to live under the same roof with. Clif apparently wasn’t too happy for most of the rest of his life, and never finished the history he was working on that according to those who’d read excerpts was quite genuinely fascinating and fresh. Clif died in ’96, and I attended his funeral service, but that’s another story.

What I didn’t write in ’84, and should have, follows. Probably it would have done Clif good to have gotten it, maybe real useful good. Would have probably led to him and me socializing some, which would have done me some real good too. I didn’t, and should have, and I am, we both were, and maybe everyone in Clif’s orbit were all the poorer for my not having done so. Damn but its bad that your stupidities and failure still hurt this many years on, but sometimes they do. Maybe some 20-year old out there is listening, and won’t fail like I did, should something similar happen to them. And maybe Clif will see it from the heavens, and know, this far away in time and space, the affection and admiration of those whose lives he touched when he walked the earth.

Dear Professor Grubbs,

I heard the news about your daughter Suzanne and am writing you this letter of condolence. There is so little words can do, words from people you don’t know or from those you do, to ease the insufferable pain you are experiencing now. I know you loved Suzanne more than anything else, and I cannot imagine the life-crushing pain her loss is to you. Mostly all you can say in times like these is how sorry you are, and that really isn’t much, isn’t enough. I am sorry, Clif, I wish it hadn’t happened, and I wish I had some explanation, but I don’t.

But Clif, there’s something true I know that I have to tell you, some small part of the truth that I possess. People since the dawn of time have attempted to put their mark on eternity through their own efforts here on this earth of ours. Artists with their art, architects with their masterworks of stone, tyrants with their vain vast monuments to themselves, whole civilizations that labored for centuries turning deserts into forests or fields into mountains–all of them thought their efforts would endure forever, and all of them failed. All of man’s efforts will turn into dust and be gone and forgotten over time enough. All except one, and that is love. Through love we create our successors, and through love we water and shape and nourish and mold and caress their souls that live on, eternally, long after we ourselves are gone from the earth and human memory. Our material efforts ultimately are as nought. All that endures is the soul.

Clif, tonight I fervently pray that the Almighty tonight sees the soul of your beloved daughter Suzanne passing before Him, and sees there how her eternal soul has been so wonderfully shaped and molded by your vast and boundless love for her. I pray that as He is sees her passing in front of Him on the throne, He is moved with admiration for what he sees there–admiration for the fruits and results of your love’s efforts that so fashioned and shaped her soul, and is touched, and that in His infinite kindness and wisdom He will reach down and ease the pain that crushes your heart, and lift the darkness that blights your life, and will give you the strength and courage to rise up from your sorrow and go forth again into life in this world and share your life, and your love, with all those around you still, who all wish and pray the same for you.

Sorry, Clif, I didn’t get this to you in time.

One thought on “Letter of Condolence I Never Wrote, and Should Have by Daniel N. White

  1. Pingback: Clif Grubbs’ Memorial Service by Daniel N. White | Dandelion Salad

Comments are closed.