Our latest magazine classic honors writer and editor Brian Doyle, who passed away a year ago this week.
Since it’s just you and me here on the page, and no one else can hear us, let’s both cheerfully admit that we have, in moments of delicious melancholy, thought about our own funerals.
Brian Doyle ’78 died early Saturday morning, May 27, having been diagnosed with a brain tumor last November. Remembering him now along with so many of his colleagues, fans, friends and family all over the country, we reprint here one of our favorite of his essays, which Brian wrote about his brother, Kevin Doyle ’69, himself dying of cancer in 2012.
One day in my rambles I found the school’s tiny basketball court in a copse of sassafras and bottlebrush trees. Four boys were playing on it, and I stopped to watch, as I love basketball above all other games, love its grace and humor and creativity and generosity and simplicity, a game that can be played beautifully by anyone of any size, a game that does not reward violence, a game that does reward selflessness and inventiveness and speed and liquidity.
One time I was at a school near Melbourne, Australia. The school was on the farthest-flung outskirts of the city, and I had noticed the buildings grow sparser and the bush more pronounced as we drove north. My host named the trees for me: ironbark, gum, fig, wattle, beech. I saw two kangaroos, the first two I had ever seen.
A son asks me when I played the best basketball of my life, and I say, instantly, without hesitation, The summer before I turned 28. And back floods every Saturday morning solo workout with maniacal drills in order to finally develop even a semblance of a left-handed hook, and Sunday afternoon doubleheaders with six guys running full-court for two hours and then collapsing in the grass laughing and moaning for beer.
It was my dad who brought me to college for my admissions interview. The college was 700 miles from our house. We drove through the night. I was 17. My father was younger than I am now. It was autumn. The college campus was the most collegiate campus you could ever imagine. It was exactly what you thought a college campus would be. It was obviously a set for a film about college.
The best class I ever had in college was a great class for small reasons, such as there were lots of girls in it, and it was late in the afternoon, and there were fewer than 20 students, and there were no blowhards or suck-ups or preeners or buffoons or conversation-dominators.
One of the three old grocery stores in our town is closing slowly. Its demise was announced a month ago, a casualty of corporate chess, and week by week the discounts mount and the shelves grow thin.
I know what you think of when I say the words University of Notre Dame du Lac.
He laughed and we all laughed, but then a student raised her hand and very quietly asked him this question: What is the point of evolution?
What Brian Doyle ’78 is reading: Someone, Alice McDermott
On my second day of kindergarten, at a school named for a species of tree, I discovered that our teacher, Miss Appleby, presented a Best Napper Award every week, and that the child who earned the most weekly napping awards was then presented with the Best Napper of the Year Award in June, on the last day of school, in assembly, before the entire school, which went from kindergarten to sixth grade, and contained some two hundred students, none of whom, I determined immediately, would outnap me.
My father said the women in my mother’s family had wills so adamant and granitic that you could get a fire started by using flint against their wills to get the necessary spark.
This soft and redolent Indiana evening, I walked into Washington Hall, a rickety lovely castle, which that evening was to host a writer from Argentina named Jorge Luis Borges.
It matters somehow that our clean laundry came back from the laundry building wrapped in crackling brown paper and bound meticulously with string; and it matters that each boy (for only boys had their wash done by the University in those hoary days three decades ago) had a laundry number, five digits, printed on clean white cloth.
Here’s a story. A boy is born in 1913, in Pittsburgh. His Irish father and German mother carry their first child up to a tiny white wooden house in the hills above the city. The boy proves to be an excellent student, quiet but thorough, and he itches to go to the University of Notre Dame.
The quiet grace of a Boy Scout troop leader.
The Secret of Life wasn’t stored in a cave by the river or trapped in the angels’ room. It was right here all along.
To be admitted without review by committee: children under the age of 12, sixth-grade teachers, the mothers of triplets, janitors, nuns (all religions), nurses, all other mothers, loggers, policemen with more than 10 years of service, Buddhists (see Appendix A).
What I am doing here is dishes, mostly. And gobs of laundry. You wouldn’t think three kids would have so much laundry, I mean, how many shirts can three kids possibly wear?
He died during the night, alone, curled in the dark near the woodpile where he had spent nearly all his life, and when the children found his body in the morning they wept.
I am standing in the hospital watching babies emerge from my wife like a circus act. First one out is a boy, dark-haired and calm, the size of an owl. He is immediately commandeered by a nurse who whisks him off for a bath and a stint in what appears to be tiny tanning bed.
Now, says the doctor, reaching inside my wife while he talks, here’s the other one, and he hauls out another boy. This one is light-haired and not calm; he grabs for a nurse’s scissors and won’t let go and they have to pry his fingers off and the nurse looks accusingly at me for some reason.…