A Reflection Upon the Death of Robert Cormier
John H. Ritter
Editor's Note: This reflection, John H. Ritter's letter to Joan Kaywell, was read aloud by Dr. Connie Zitlow, ALAN President, at the ALAN 2000 Workshop in Milwaukee. When I asked for, and received, permission from John to publish his letter in The ALAN Review, he also sent along some background information which I thought would be of interest to readers. Reprinted here is an excerpt from John's note to me, plus the original messages on the passing of Robert Cormier from Dr. Zitlow, forwarded by Joan Kaywell, past president of ALAN. Finally, we have John's letter, which brings to mind somewhat a newspaper editor's response years ago to a young girl's heartfelt question. You may remember his reassuring and universal letter included the words, "Yes, Virginia."-psc
From: John H Ritter < HeyJohn@JohnHRitter.com >
To: Pamela Sissi Carroll
Date: Thu, 11 Jan 2001 12:20:42 -0800
… Since I'd heard earlier from Chris Crutcher that Bob was seriously ill, I'd had a few weeks to let my emotions and my beliefs kick around in my brain. Part of my response to Joan Kaywell came from seeing Chris' face when he told me the news and reading the reflective look in his eyes. Death is just a tough thing for us to handle.
So when I received Joan's note of sadness, I felt inspired to hit "Reply" and write her back. But as I wrote, I began to sense that the letter was not just between us. That is, I felt I was writing the words to myself, as well as to anyone else who may at some point need the sentiment behind them …
… Here is the original e-mail I received from Joan:
Mon, 6 Nov 2000 08:25:37 -0500 (EST)
It is with sadness that I'm forwarding this message from Connie Zitlow in regards to Bob Cormier, but I thought that you all would like to know.
Joan F. Kaywell, Ph.D.,1999 ALAN President
> --Original Message---
> From: Connie S. Zitlow
> Sent: Friday, November 03, 2000
> Hello all,
> I am very sad to convey some very bad news to all of you. Robert Cormier died yesterday morning, November 2. I knew he was ill and had to cancel his part in the ALAN workshop, but I had hoped he would recover. There is no one who can replace him in my heart as a favorite YA author, one who wrote such gripping and artistic books and spoke so eloquently about his readers.
> Connie S. Zitlow, 2000 ALAN President
And my response to her:
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.
Reference Citation: Ritter, John H. (2001) "A Reflection Upon the Death of Robert Cormierr." The ALAN Review, Volume 28, Number 2, p. 6.