I was twelve, maybe thirteen when I first read the poem, An elegy for Jane, by Theodore Roethke. I was in Mr. Rolfsrud’s classroom, top floor of Central Junior High. It was a warm day, nearing the end of the school year, so the classroom was closed in with stale air, and we were restless. But not Mr. Rolfsrud. He still donned a suit and bowtie, and never seemed to sweat. He loved poetry, and so did I. I loved to listen to him read aloud. Each word had importance, and he showed this by the way he spoke, and the way he dressed. When he got to the end of the poem, we knew the girl had died, and that the person writing the poem was not related to the girl, nor romantically involved with the girl, but he loved her all the same.
“Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love:
I, with no rights in this matter,
Neither father nor lover.”
Some of the boys snickered. Girls coughed. We had no idea of love, not yet. How could we? Yet we were left to consider the impact of one human life on another outside the context of romantic or familial love. I’m not sure I understood then, but the words were crisp and strong and true, so I put them in my heart’s memory to unpack when needed.
And thankfully, and I do mean with thanks, I have unpacked them through the years. It may seem strange to say thankfully here because we know that someone would have had to die for these words to make sense. But what a privilege to love someone. To love someone enough to feel the pain of the loss.
Yesterday, when I saw that he had passed, the tears flowed. I certainly had “no rights in this matter,” but I knew my mother had loved him – she having “no rights in this matter” either. But he was her friend, her brother. I wish there was a different word to use here. Because it feels like more than that. He showed my mother respect and support in a time of her life when she needed it the most. All done with strength, human compassion, and a sense of humor. And in seeing this, still a teenager, I learned the value of respect. The value of human connection. He was a man who loved his wife, and his children, and still could offer love, not romantic, not familial, but love all the same, to the others around him. What an honor to see this, to know this man.
We are given examples of greatness throughout our lives, from poets to teachers, to generals. Often the world gets too closed in with stale air, and we become restless, distracted, but I pray I always find the time, in honor of people like Mr. Rolfsrud and Dr. Hovda, to “speak the words of love.”
(My deepest sympathies to Judy Hovda, David Hovda, and Kari Hovda Schlachter)