A Reflection upon the Death of Robert Cormier
by John H. Ritter
This reflection is in e-mail form. In it, John H. Ritter uses the recent passing of groundbreaking novelist and young adult literature icon Robert Cormier (The Chocolate War, French Town Summer, We All Fall Down) to further explore our culture's attitude toward death. He writes to Dr. Joan Kaywell, then president of ALAN (Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the NCTE [National Council of Teachers of English]).
(appeared in The ALAN Review, Volume 28, Number 2, p. 6)
From: John H. Ritter
To: Joan F. Kaywell
Date: Tue, 7 Nov 2000 11:08:06
Subject: A Reflection Upon the Death of Robert Cormier
I appreciate your sending along the news of Robert Cormier's death. Chris Crutcher had told me a few weeks ago that Bob was quite ill. I remember thinking what a shame it would be to lose his wonderful voice from our chorus. Still, I'm not so sure that this is a time for sadness.
All my life I've known that our culture does not handle death well. We typically see it as horrible and devastating, rather than as the natural and proper event that it is. Beyond that, our overwhelming fear of death is really at the heart of many sad and oppressive things we do to ourselves and others. Racism and rigid religious practices, to name a few.
When I was four years, old my mother died of breast cancer. And probably because I was so young, I never felt a jolt. I never cried at her sudden disappearance. I truly felt no loss. As a quiet country boy, already prone to walking the hills, I felt her presence everywhere. On the mountain. On the meadow. I spoke with her often. I listened. And sensing our bond, I went out into this rugged world and did my best.
Last summer I introduced myself to Bob Cormier while he was in Los Angeles to receive the LA Times Book Prize for Frenchtown Summer. As all who had met this humble and gentle man seem to report, it was instant friendship. He praised the idea behind my first novel. And he accepted my praise for his work with a gracious laugh. I left that evening feeling a bond between us, too. A bond, I think, that lives on.
Every year the leaves of summer fill the sycamore trees in a nearby canyon. Every autumn those leaves turn orange and yellow, glimmer in the noonday sun, then drop to the earth in the early winter winds and rains.
By December, the sycamore trees stand bare like frozen bolts of lightning. The days grow darker and tell me that winter will soon be here. And by then I long for that joyous solitude of winter.
Sadness and grief are founded in fear. That's what I learned from my mother's death. That's what I learned from the adults around me and from the pity they poured on a motherless boy.
But how could they've known what I knew? They were too old. Too grown. Too removed from the resourcefulness of children to understand.
Death is not a time to be afraid, to walk and wallow in our grief. To me, that's like fearing the winter, like mourning the absence of wildflowers, sunshine, and autumn leaves.
We need our winters. We need the changes winter brings. I love the drizzly whisper of wool gray days, the cozy warmth of fire and friends. I love to hunker at home on thundery nights and reflect upon the lightning strikes.
Bob leaves. I walk to my bookshelf. He comes back.
He speaks. I listen. I rejoice today as I did twelve years ago when I first tripped upon his work. Nothing for me to do now, but go out into this world and do my best.
And I think Robert Cormier would understand.
I see us all as leaves on a sycamore tree. Budding from bare branches in our early springs, growing green and full in our summers. Only our years are different. Sometimes they run long, sometimes they are cut short. But eventually we reach our autumns and our wintery winds and rains.
And we all fall down.
It is the rhythm of life. It is a good thing. All is well.