Flowers But Fading Seen
Posted on May 10, 2013
‘Son, come closer. There is something I have to give you. Closer still. That chair, pull it up, Son. It will seem like nothing at first but it is much, much more. There, that is better.’ These words were spoken, with considerable effort, by Howard Cromwell who laid upon his deathbed. Howard was not old but he was sick and so there was a tragic sort of cloud that hovered in the hospital room, lurking in the corners and upon the floor. It was the sort of cloud that came in without warning and sat heavy in the air. The sort of cloud that is remembered well by those who walked felt it. The sort of cloud that choked the lungs of Morey Cromwell who now sat alongside his father in a cold steel chair.
‘Dad, you are not supposed to talk. Nurse O’Brien has given you strict orders.’
‘Orders are rules and rules are for the living.’
‘You are still alive.’
‘Not in spirit, Morey, only in the flesh. But, I must give you something. I must stay focused. The case over there on top of the counter, can you grab it, yes, that one, open it, son’
The younger Cromwell removed from the old, vinyl briefcase a worn and tattered book. Along with it was a letter tinted yellow with age. Howard Cromwell looked on with strained delight as his son curiously flipped through the dusty pages. The volume was hard-covered and its jacket was a pale blue. On it was an image of a man and woman stooped with sadness and despair. Above the image read “A Farewell To Arms” and below it, in red, the author’s name: Ernest Hemingway. His fingers were not eager, his pace was not rushed, but young Cromwell’s hands stopped their fidgeting on certain pages where hand-written profanities were visible over black dashes. Upon realizing that his son had made this discovery Howard Cromwell’s eyes became brighter, his wilted posture bloomed and his weak heart began to race.
‘A book? All this effort for a book? And against the nurses orders no less? Dad, I understand Hemingway is a famous author, but you know I don’t care about literature. And with the scribbles of some vandal inside?’
‘Son, I give this book to you not to read, but to keep.
‘You should rest.’
‘I will have enough time for that soon. You need to listen. Every book has a story inside of it but also a story of its own. And while all who own the title read within it the very same tale, the book itself contributes to the story of he who reads it. So you see, son, to read a book is nothing, to own a book is everything.’ Upon delivering the last word of the sentence Howard Cromwell broke into a fit of coughing and convulsions. Morey ventured to call nurse O’Brien but his father pushed away his waving hand in denial.
‘This is crazy, Dad. You are sick. You are not thinking straight. You always said, if the time came when your mind no longer worked to tell you.’
‘My mind is working fine, Morey. Be a good boy, hand me that glass of water, carefully now, that’s it – much better. Now, just listen, Morey,’ the dying man forced out in between gasps. ‘Humour the requests of a dying man.’ Such a scene was difficult for young Cromwell, but he had to face it, he had to take it for what it was. His father was dying.
‘It was 1931. I was about your age I suppose, nineteen, twenty maybe, it does not matter. I had traveled to France to escape the monotony, the lack of culture of American life. I was on a train in the Riviera, from Nice to Saint-Raphael – oh, I wish you could have seen it then, the Cote d’Azur in its zenith, its pinnacle. I sat across from an older gentlemen who was well-dressed, very studious looking, a fine moustache combed upwards and a brilliant black hat. He was reading ‘A Farewell To Arms’. The very same copy you hold in your hand now. At the time I had not read it.’
‘“Is it any good, sir?” I asked him’
‘“Yes, it’s very good.” He had a lovely French accent but spoke perfect English.’
‘“Howard Cromwell, how do you do?”’
‘We exchanged business cards.’
‘“I rather enjoyed The Sun Also Rises. You could say I am fan” I continued.’
‘“I as well. Though I am biased I suppose” he replied.’
‘“Ernest is a close friend of mine.’”
‘He was a translator whose work was focused heavily in literature and had been teaching French language at Princeton since ’22. We got along rather well and spoke for a few hours until we stopped at Antibes to take on more passengers. The train was already full and all the seats were taken and it was getting rather stifling in the cabin and became even worse when the new passengers crowded the aisle between the seats. A woman had boarded the train at Antibes and found her spot in the crowd right beside the seats in which Maurice and I were sitting. She was quite beautiful and was visibly a few years older than me. Maurice stood.
‘“Mademoiselle, do me the honour of taking my seat” he said in fluent French.’
‘“Nonsense!” I interjected and stood as well. “The professor is riding to Saint-Tropez, I am getting off long before him. at Nice. Please, take my seat” I said in English.’
‘My new friend lowered himself back into his seat after a subtle nod in my direction. The woman, whom I had to awkwardly manoeuvre around, took my seat across from him. She thanked me. I made one last salutation in the professor’s direction before taking a standing position near one of the train doors further down the cabin. I never saw Maurice Coindreau again.’
‘You stole the book from him while giving up your seat?’ young Cromwell asked of his father who made no verbal response and only rolled his eyes.
‘Four years later I received a package in the mail containing a letter from Maurice. It is there, that one you took out of the case along with the book, where has it gone? Yes, there it is. Open it and read it, son. Careful now.’
‘“Dear, Howard. It has been quite some time since we met on that train in France and I very much hope this letter finds you in good spirits. I must thank you first for giving me your business card – it has allowed me to send this package to you. You may recall the circumstances of our parting, there was a woman, a beautiful woman, who you gave up your seat to – her name is Sarah Haycott. I had motioned first to do so, but you intercepted my act of nobility, you robbed me of a minor opportunity and unknowingly gave me the world. Today I marry Sarah. We are madly in love. A love that runs so deep it can’t be felt, it can only be known. A love that is so true it gives reason to the unreasonable and faith to the faithless. Love is the most elusive thing in this world, Howard. All search for it, few find it. Money can buy you many things and what it can’t, hard work can supply. But neither wealth nor labour nor time can provide a man with love. It is left to chance. Some call it fate. You gave your seat that day to love. You have given me what no man can give, what no money can procure, what no toil can earn. I have love now. Hard work will take care of the rest. There is nothing I can give you which can match what you have given me, so I give you this book.
‘“Know that it is not just any book, it is not just any version. Ernest had written in his original manuscript many curse words which the publisher, Scribner’s, refused to include in the first edition. Instead, they replaced the profanities with dashes. After publication, Ernest took two copies of A Farewell To Arms and reinserted by hand those obscenities which were censored so as to provide to the reader the correct text as he intended it. One of these copies he gave to his friend and contemporary James Joyce, the other he presented to me. This is the most valuable, the most important object I possess. Not entirely because of its financial worth, but because of its history. You have given me love and, in return, I have given you comparatively little. Please accept my humble offering. I wish for you every happiness that I have and more. Forever in your debt, Signed, Maurice Coindreau.’” Morey folded the letter and placed it back into its cracking envelope with weary hands and heavy eyes. His recognition of the gravity of the gift did not outweigh his concern for he who gave it.
‘Three years later,’ Howard Cromwell continued, ‘I was living here in New York City. I had a good job with fair pay and was enjoying the life of a bachelor. I cherished the gift that Maurice had given me, like he said, not only for its value but its importance. I brought the book and letter with me everywhere I went, in my briefcase usually, to remind me of Maurice, of France, of love. I was returning home after work late one night when I was held up by a mugger in a dark alley off of Ninth Avenue. He hit me on the head with something hard, I don’t know what, it broke the skin on my head open and I fell to the ground in a daze. When I woke, both my wallet and briefcase were gone. All that remained was a battered man, a pool of blood and a sunken heart.’
‘A few weeks later, after the wound had healed, there was a knock on my apartment door. I opened it to find a woman I had never seen before holding my briefcase in her hands. She looked scared and hopeful. I will never forget it. She held out the briefcase and I immediately looked inside and found the book and the letter untouched. The robber had taken my wallet with two hundred dollars inside of it but left a book worth thousands. You see, son, this is what I am getting at – it is not the commercial value of a thing, it’s the personal value. The woman who stood at my doorway, frightened and curious, was your mother. She had opened the briefcase, she had seen the book, she had read the letter and knew then the value of the contents. Also on the letter was my name and address. We fell in love and in ’41 had our first child and named him Morey, after he who brought us together.’
Following so much speech and effort Howard Cromwell began churning in his hospital bed and wheezing and grasping at his chest. His eyes rolled backwards, toward his brain, and his hands clenched together in tight, white-skinned fists. Nurse O’Brien raced into the room and injected a syringe of morphine into the old man’s intravenous tube. Relative calm was restored and though he did not pass out, Howard Cromwell laid back upon his pillow and with considerable difficulty re-joined the conversation.
‘Are you okay? Is that better, Dad? Would you like the nurse to stay? No? Okay. Goodbye Nurse. I still don’t see the importance in all this, Dad. Please rest. Do you need anything? Is there anything I can do? Here, drink this water, what- you don’t want it, but you must.’
‘Take a look around you, Boy.’ Cromwell Sr. retorted with a slight drug-induced lilt. ‘These things are all we have. These impossibilities. These situations that are those that can never be duplicated in any other person’s life. The car you drive, your home, your clothing, it’s all nothing, it is zeroed in the end, because it doesn’t make you who you are. But the impossibilities, the rare web that the cosmos weave for us, they make us who we are, they are enduring and infinite. They are all that remains when we are gone, the memory of them, the proof that I was my own man, and you are yours. A man plays hockey, is given his jersey upon which his surname is misspelled, that jersey sees a thousand whistles before gathering dust in a box. Years later, that man has a child and when that child is ready for it, that man hands that jersey down. That jersey, that collection of random threads and stitches, that patchwork, is worth more than any inheritance or fortune that can ever be left. That piece of fabric distinguishes that man and his child from any other man and child on earth, and so, that family’s place in history is cast, their legacy, though modest, is solid.’
Howard Cromwell looked at his son for a sign of comprehension, which he found in flashes. Morey was slowly coming to grasp what his father was implying.
‘But, Dad, at the end of the day these things are still material. The only meaning they have is that which you give them, and if every meaning given to every material object by every romantic mind is to be taken as truth the value of truly valuable things stands no chance.’
‘Who are we to say what is truly valuable and what is not. Objects are not currency. There is no governing power appraising them, there is no sticker placed upon them with a price, they are not taxed or printed in some mint. They are owned by different people at different times and it is what happens in between that matters. Impossibilities. Rarities. Things that happen against all odds. You see, our lives are flowers but fading seen. We are only made immortal in our interactions, our exchanges with others. The flower will fold to dust on the ground, but, the memory of that flower will live forever in the curious child’s mind.’
Howard Cromwell sunk, deflated almost, into the linens of his hospital bed. Morey clenched even harder the hands that were once animated and fiery. His father’s breath grew deep and heavy and strained. His eyelids opened and closed with the weight of an anchor. The cloud, the dark, heavy, tragic cloud that lurked in the shadows began to stir. It rose up into the room to greet the event. It orbited young Cromwell who could not bring himself to swallow, or cough, or blink, or do anything really. The cloud seemed to pass over old Cromwell, taking extra time, as if washing him or taking something from him, before melting away into history.
‘Flowers but fading seen,’ Howard Cromwell said before breathing his last breath. His hands grew cold. His eyes were open. His countenance seemingly content. ∗
Originally published in Ether Books
I really like this story. Lots of dialogue, and it made Hemingway seem even more gifted, and his work magical.
Thanks!! Happy you took the time to read it. An interesting note, Flowers But Fading Seen is actually a line from the George Peele poem that Hemingway took his A Farewell To Arms title from.