The Best Writer I’ll Ever Know

Committed a sin yesterday, in the hallway, at noon. I roared at my son, I grabbed him by the shirt collar, I frightened him so badly that he cowered and wept, and when he turned to run I grabbed him by the arm so roughly that he flinched, and it was the flicker of fear and pain across his face, the bright eager holy riveting face I have loved for ten years, that stopped me then and haunts me this morning; for I am the father of his fear, I sent it snarling into his heart, and I can never get it out now, which torments me.

Brian Doyle, who wrote those words at the start of his short, brilliant, heart-wrenching essay, “A Sin,” is the best writer I’ve ever known personally. At Notre Dame four decades ago, we would talk about becoming writers over bongs and beers in some dimly lit dorm room, shaping our dreams with ill-fitting words and clanking metaphors, fantasizing, as Doyle would write me many years later, about becoming WRITERS rather than the writers we became, carpenters as he put it, who had carpentered “thousands of pages, thousands of hours of listening and poking and trying — thousands of hours of dreaming and then carpentering the dream as best you could.”

Doyle — I always called him Doyle, rarely Brian — died yesterday, May 26, 2017, in Lake Oswego, Oregon. In his 60 years, he wrote novels and poems and essays, fictional and not, about basketball and Van Morrison and altar boys and grace and the coward Osama bin Laden and his son’s flawed heart and Chicago and pinot noir and a thousand other subjects that he illuminated with fierce empathy and gentle wit and a sense of guileless wonder that made his voice unique and, in one of Doyle’s favorite words, holy. He had other favorites: shamble, roar, scribble, mad, rivet, muddle, shiver, seethe. I think seethe may have been his secret all-time favorite. Or maybe muddle.

“Be tender and laugh,” he liked to say in the year after doctors found the brain tumor. He told an interviewer once, “To catch and share stories, what could be holier and cooler than that? Stories change lives; stories save lives. They crack open hearts, they open minds.” We saw each other just twice since graduation, but each time it was as if we’d bumped into each other on South Quad and immediately picked up where we left off the night before. Every now and then, an email from Doyle would appear in my inbox with the subject line, “heh heh heh” or “will make you grin,” and the body of the email would be one of his essays. One of my favorites is below. God bless Doyle. May he rest in peace.

Not Skating: a Note

Once and only once did I attempt to skate with skates strapped to my terrified feet. This was long ago when I was a boy with a crush the size of Idaho on a girl named Tina. She loved to skate and one day in our high school she said hey want to go skating later a bunch of us are going? My brain, seizing on the words want to, instantly commanded me to blurt yes, and Tina wandered beautifully off, and I spent the rest of the day remembering that I could not skate, and had no skates, and was terrified of skating, which seemed icy and unnatural, like Ivana Trump.

I saw my brother Peter at lunch and I explained the problem and he said helpfully you’re screwed. He is a great brother that way, blunt and honest, which you have to admire, mostly.

At home I scoured the house for skates to no avail but the kids next door said their dad used to skate when he was in prison in Quebec and they found his old hockey skates which were about size 400 and seemed to be stitched from the skins of animals. These fit if I wore lots of socks, so I wore lots of socks and rode my bicycle to the pond with the huge skates dangling from my handlebars like twin wolverines.

At the pond Tina and her friends were floating around the ice as if they were made of music and not one of them fell or even wobbled. My heart sank. I sat on a log ostensibly fussing with the skates but trying to evade the moment when I staggered out on the ice and everyone for three counties around wept with laughter, some so hard that they peed a little. The only other person on the log with me was a boy of ten or so who had no skates. I said hey and he said hey and I said you going out there? and he said no he was only here because his sister needed an excuse to be with her boyfriend and she was paying him five dollars not to tell their mom.

How about you? he said, and I explained how I had a crush on Tina but was soon to be famous in three counties as the guy who made people laugh so hard they peed. He said he wouldn’t watch, which I thought was right gentlemanly of him, especially for a kid ten years old. Most kids ten years old would pay cash to watch an older boy be embarrassed.

After a while Tina glided over and asked if I was coming out on the ice and I stepped into the skates and stood up. All these years later I remember the feeling of standing up in those skates; it was like I was wearing furry rowboats. I took one step out on to the ice and both ankles rolled and I went down. I struggled up and fell down and up and down and on and on this went forever and Tina started laughing and couldn’t stop and I pretended to laugh also and then one of her friends started laughing so hard I was afraid she would have an aneurysm so I reached out helpfully from the ice to soothe her fevered brow. I did not swing at the friend, as was later scurrilously reported by somebody. Finally I managed to get up onto my feet again and with the last of my dignity I channeled my brother Peter and told Tina that I could not skate, that these particular skates had been borrowed from the nether circles of hell, and that I hated skating, although I liked her.

To her credit she laughed and said no problem, and she kept skating with her friends, and I biked home and returned the furry skates. Tina and I never did date, or even come close to it, and for years I thought the problem had been my lack of skating acumen, but then later I realized that she simply did not feel the way I felt, which is what happens most of the time, and why when someone does feel the way you feel, which is what my lovely bride told me she felt this morning, it’s thrilling and invigorating, which perhaps is how skating feels to skaters. I wouldn’t know.