It was more than the games. It was the conversation. Anyone who knew Will, knows what I mean. He had a mind like no other. He had strong opinions but always expressed with uncommon wit and humor. We chatted about everything -- everything! Politics, poetry, gardening, our lives, our families and friends. When his son was tragically killed that January a few years ago, I told him we could take a break, but he said no, he'd like the distraction of the game. So we played in silence for awhile. And then he began talking and poured out his joys and sorrows in parenthood. I recognized his candor was for my ears only and it remains so. Our friendship grew and it seemed there was nothing off the table for our discussions. We laughed in our chat dialogues just as we might in person. His wit was hard to match, but I did my best to keep up. Just about a year ago now his beloved sister was diagnosed with cancer, and within just six months she died. It was such a sorrow to him and he was still mourning her loss when he, too, was diagnosed with cancer. None of us knew at the time he had just a few short months to live.
His son, Joe, wrote a wonderful obituary that tells the story of his life as well as it might be in a few short paragraphs. Here's a link to the obit on line.
A friend of mine, the friend who introduced me to Will, wrote a colorful description of his friend. I hope he won't mind if I repeat it here as it adds further dimension to this character of a guy:
One of my best and oldest friends just died. Dr. Willis L. Pitkin, Jr. -- Will -- was for years my protection against the generalized insanity that is a college English Department. He was also one of the best Scrabble players I ever knew. He grew strange vegetables in his garden, raised exotic chickens, loved plants of all sorts, and was the bane of University Deans and Presidents. His wit was pointed, his writing ditto, and he was utterly fearless. For years he walked from Hyde Park to the university wearing a construction worker's helmet that read "Chicken Little Was Right." His license plate read YNLNOT. His intellect was wide-ranging and he was probably on the verge of solving the mysteries of the universe when he died. Rest in peace, old friend. No, don't. I'm mad as hell you went so soon.Someone posted on Facebook a link to a letter to the editor published in the local newspaper, the Herald Journal—a column where Will’s words appeared frequently over the years
Remembering Will Pitkin
Tuesday, July 23, 2013
To the editor:
Will Pitkin, a great writing teacher, wrote great letters to the editor. They were short
I wrote a Poetry Wednesday post in 2009 and copied and pasted the snippets of chat from a game where we invented (badly) a rhyme about a Gox. I feel rather glad now that I preserved that. I wish I had more of our conversations saved.
In December 2010, after some discussions we were having about the winter solstice, Will sent me the following poem he had written.
Winter SolsticeWith this blog post, I will try to find a place for my sadness over the loss of someone who came to be a wonderful friend. He was not one to wallow in any emotion. Will's words have profoundly influenced my own thinking. I will always be grateful I had a chance to know this remarkable man.
More than two hours ago
I opened the door to the henhouse
And spread across the space I’d cleared of snow
Yesterday’s lettuce from Lee’s Market
And yesterday’s bread (soaked in hot water) from Crumb Brothers Bakery.
Now, along the mountain ridge, the south-most sun
Edges above the solstice notch,
And, framed by the radiant icicles barring my kitchen window,
The hens now peck in sunlight at the frozen leaves
And scratch the scattered loaves, no longer steaming.
Two below zero the reading says.
The hens move about on bare feet, surely miserable.
One, in molt, must certainly have thoughts of doom, fluff showing
That should be hidden, trapping warmth and layered over with full feathers.
She stands on one foot, the other drawn beneath her ragged wing.
She has no thoughts of doom, of anything.
I worry for her.
She does not worry for herself.
I know that she, that they are miserable.
She, they do not.
We tell stories, make movies about elephants and penguins and fish
And their moments of joy, of abject terror, of hope, of hopeless misery.
Elephants and penguins and fish do not tell these stories,
Nor understand them, however slowly we spin them out.
As I mumble my solace, my miserable hens stand mindless on frozen ground,
Pecking their food,
Mindless that tomorrow will have minutes more sunlight
(Mindless of tomorrow)
Or that July will offer misery of its own.
Only a few thousand years ago,
On this very day no calendar had yet named,
A family, a tribe huddles for warmth, awaiting the south-most sunrise.
When the curved edge appears, a thin beam of harvested sunlight
Strikes a rock face
Exactly where they have dreamed, have prayed it would.
A murmur of relief,
Cause enough for cautious hope.
What they witness this day brings comfort;
They will know more tomorrow.