A Year Later

We’ve been seeing, over the last two weeks, some of our colleges and universities caving in, with administrators devoured by the clichés they have been content over the years to flatter and leave unchallenged. My late wife, Judy, was for thirty-eight years the Director of Academic Publications at George Washington University. Everything published under the imprint of the University had to come under her hand, including the courses offered for instruction.

I recently came across a memo she had written in the mid-90s, in which she recognized that she could not finally “stand aloof from the canon wars.” She was dealing with proposals to create new doctoral fields for “African-American or Asian-American literature.” “Would we not be suggesting,” she remarked, “that the somewhat thin body of work in Asian-American lit is analogous to the several centuries and endeavor that span Beowulf and the works of Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Bacon, Webster, Jonson, Milton, Donne, Dryden et al.”

It struck me later that these were all writers she had studied intensively herself. But if the university were open to grand new fields so narrow, she had another suggestion: “Let’s open it up really wide and add a field in the works of Viennese expatriates who lived within a mile of the University of Chicago, 1945-55.”

That short note caught the sensibility and sardonic humor of my Lady. Since she died, I’ve been trying to recover that sensibility a bit more fully by reading again the books she loved – notably Middlemarch, and even some of the novels of Angela Thirkell, essentially giving us a taste of what Jane Austen would have sounded like if she had been writing about life in the English countryside during the post-war Labour government. I also read the book that made Judy cry not long before she died, Mrs. Gaskell’s Sylvia’s Lovers, a moving and finely crafted story.

But I’ve also come across caches of letters, and my own family journal, from the 1970s and 1980s and even many older ones from the 1960s. I don’t know why it took so long for a simple truth to break through: I spend so much time reading books, including biographies, and so wouldn’t it make sense that it’s time, with Judy’s death, to start reading closely the book of my own life? Thinking back quickly, the 60s and 70s may come as a blur. But those years were lived day by day, and as I look again at those letters and notes, I find myself living Judy’s life again day by day.

Judy - 1
Judy Arkes

There was Judy’s letter to the principal of the public school, writing without rancor but with sharpness, pointing out that our first-born had been saddled with work in math so elementary as to foster boredom and, with boredom, mischief. My own notes brought the record of a fight between our boys, and our older one, Peter, age nine, drew on his favorite Tin-Tin Stories and protested: “I’ve given a proper apology. . .I demand a proper insult.”

I could feel Judy’s sense of desperation as I found a package of about forty letters, crafted separately. She was applying for jobs in editing in all kinds of enterprises as the children were taken up all day in school themselves. She sought a job in Washington when I’d won a fellowship to spend a year at the Smithsonian. But how could she offer herself for a substantial job if she’d have to give it up after one year to return to Amherst and “idleness”?

As it happened she did find that marvelous job, and the solution, for a short while, was to commute: to fly back every weekend to the boys and me in Amherst. That imparted its own strain for her, in being away from the family even for a few days. A note on the fly: “Distribute kisses from me and send my love (for yourself as well). Love, J.”

Eventually I would do the flying. The last time she dropped me at the airport, I told her that we had only three more runs to the airport and I’d be with her all the time.

We’ve just had the anniversary of her death, on November 13, with Fr. Arne Panula doing a lovely midday Mass for her this past Friday. But it was on a Thursday that she died. I was preparing this past Thursday to go to a black-tie dinner, when I realized that this was precisely the moment when the news came crashing in on me a year ago.

I had flown from Amherst, and arrived at the hospital at 6:30, only then getting the hard news. And suddenly I could feel it in my stomach: what it was like to return that night to our apartment – dark, empty, and silent.

I plead the indulgence of our readers in mentioning all of this now, for we’ve had a week filled with the tumults of the campuses, the killings in Paris, and the resounding troubles of the world. But I couldn’t give primacy to any of them right now, when set against this anniversary, so long anticipated, and leaving only scraps of significance for everything else.

What I can report is that, in this year on unfamiliar ground, trying to make my way without her, I’m reliving Judy’s life with those letters and notes, and she remains vividly with me every day.

Hadley Arkes

Hadley Arkes

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College. He is also Founder and Director of the Washington-based James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights and the American Founding. His most recent book is Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is now available for download.

  • Rich in MN

    Amen.

    Long before you would have recognized it with this term, your marriage was a sacrament.

  • Dave Fladlien

    It sounds like she was a very special person. I’m very sorry for your loss. I hope the confidence that she is waiting for you in eternity is some way helpful. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  • DeaconEdPeitler

    My prayers for her immortal soul.

  • Phil Hawley

    What a touching tribute to your wife. I suspect all of us who read this have the same thought: wish I’d been blessed to know Judy.

  • Therese

    Thank-you for sharing your wife with us.

  • PCB

    I have not been so moved by such a telling since I turned, during my own grief, to C.S. Lewis, “A Grief Observed”. Thank you for writing this; thank you for sharing this. God Bless.

  • grump

    To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die. God bless you and yours, Mr. Arkes.

  • Steven P Glynn

    Thank you Professor Arkes, upon rereading this one year from now you may be surprised at how succinctly you have conveyed her spirit. I’m a fan of Judy after a few paragraphs. I sincerely hope that by your sharing her with us, we may be able to share, however slightly, your grief with you. Prayers for you and your family.

  • Charlie

    Beautifully written. May you find peace of mind this year.You have already experienced peace of soul. God love you and yours.

  • Rene

    All I can say is that I am saying a prayer for you and your late wife.

  • Craig Payne

    Isn’t it remarkable, that she is praying for you even as you write? May she rest in joys eternal, and may you be comforted.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    She was a fine piercing intellect and a beautiful soul. She still is.

  • Hadley Arkes

    I asked the indulgence of my readers today for doing something more personal, though I
    thought it might bear an interest for other people who have been dealing with
    grief for the same reasons. There were, as I said, many other tumults in the world, but the anniversary of Judy’s death towered over everything else for me. But your kind comments have dissolved my uneasiness here and confirmed the decision to write. I’m deeply grateful for the
    lovely comments our readers have set down today. I’m so touched by the notion, coming through
    these letters, that even people distant think they have the sense of Judy—and
    they do seem to have it right.

    I’d fill in another part of the story that would probably deepen the account for some of our friends. I’d met Judy 61 years ago, in September 1954, at a bus stop in Chicago. We were on our way to classes in our first year at Carl Schurz High School. We didn’t go together until our senior
    year—and then broke up as we entered college. We came back together, though, in
    our sophomore year—and married in our senior year. This is something now quite rare: getting married early and launching on life together.

    I’ve been touched especially today by the comments set down by Steve Glynn, Fr. Morello,
    Charlie, PCB, my old pal Grump, Phil Hawley, Dave Fladlien, Rich in MN, andCraig Payne. I’ve shared your comments with our family, and especially with our two sons, Peter and Jeremy, and they are as grateful for them as I am.

    • Charlie6

      A day late but my 25 cents and a cup of coffee’s worth if I may. No apologies needed or indulgences requested on your part. Your lovely wife is interwoven into the writing so well that to exclude how she lived her life in context to the larger theme you attempt to convey would have greatly diminished (to irrelevance I might add), the larger theme.
      I enjoyed and gained much from your work today and I thank you!

    • Ajax the Greater

      Dr. Arkes, I am always moved by the clear way that you articulate ideas. I seek out your articles, books, and podcasts of your lectures on all sorts of scholarly topics. Thank you for -via this article- for sharing a more personal part of your life. You are a wonderful human being, and I count you as a blessing to our Church, profession (yes, I am one too), and our country. God Bless!

  • Bro_Ed

    I’m not a “Dr. Who” fan, but a friend sent me this quote from one of the scripts upon the death of my big brother: “People fall out of the world sometimes but they always leave traces; little things you can’t account for. Nothing is ever forgotten, not really, and if it is sometimes remembered it can come back, even if only briefly.”

    I admired “your Lady” when you wrote your first piece. More so today as I learn more about her. May she rest in peace.

  • Tom Williams

    Your article touched me deeply. In a world that has lost it’s way, your sharing how relationships are the most important part of what makes us human needs to be heard more often. Thats the good news that can be a light in the darkness. My prayers are with you.

  • Brian Guthrie

    May God comfort you and shine His perpetual light on your dear wife; she now sees with blazing clarity and no longer “as through a glass darkly”. Your grieving love shows that “the greatest of these IS love”. (St. Paul, First Corinthians 13, 1-13.). My late mother prayed Paul’s epistle as a 9 year old at the Benjamin Franklin Public School in Philadelphia in 1922. She taught it to me as a boy and recited it during her last days at age 99. Blessings to you and yours.

  • Edward G. Stafford

    A moving remembrance of love lived daily, weekly, monthly, annually, eternally.

  • Rich

    What is clearly evident from your article is that, despite all of your professional success, your greatest love, after God, was your wife. a wonderful testament and an inspiration for all married persons.

  • I’m so sorry for your loss. God grant it fertility, and somehow make in it a space for joy so that you can be closer with her still in a new way.

  • NDaniels

    You and your family are in my thoughts and Prayers, Professor Arkes.

  • barbara mahany

    such a beautiful meditation on lifelong love. turning the pages of your entwined story — from the young mother writing to the principal, the deeply-read university administrator wise-cracking about the viennese ex-pats holed up in hyde park, to the kisses she distributed, and the books she loved to read — i feel your judy sprung to life (and with that glorious photo to further animate the animation). bless you for this sacred marking of the year. and may you be wrapped in the blanket that your rarest of love so promises.