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McGrath: April is far from the ‘cruelest month’

Updated: May 1, 2013 2:08PM



I was not going to punch T.S. Eliot, just give him a piece of my mind.

Nothing against him personally. In fact, I would not have even recognized the 1948 Nobel Prize-winning poet had we met on the street.

What I objected to was the opening line in his poem “The Waste Land,” proclaiming that “April is the cruelest month.”

April? Easter time? Come on!

First of all, in Chicago, April always has been the very best time of year. The sod thaws, flowers bloom and the sweet-smelling nighttime breezes that blow across Lake Michigan fill you with adventure and energy.

Eliot shot all that down with five bullet-like words.

But my main beef is that the rest of his post-World War I poem said that because our planet was a mess and mankind immoral and empty, that spring and Easter, which symbolize hope and resurrection, must be a fraud.

Eliot was 76 and I was a schoolboy when I first learned about him. I felt he had thrown in the towel for mankind at a time when my own life’s journey had barely begun.

His poem, written in 1922, went on to explain that April begins the season that makes fools of us because it “breeds lilacs out of dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.”

Well, thank you, I thought. That’s the whole idea. It’s why we are here. Why we go on. How we find joy.

After all, from early childhood I learned that Easter was observed around April, not because it was when the Bible said Jesus Christ came back from the dead. Rather, it made symbolic sense to celebrate in spring, when new life rises all around.

And when you’re a kid, I swear you can feel a kind of resurrection inside.

Like when I was 13 and received a basketball, a metal hoop and a nylon net for Christmas. The winter of 1962 seemed to be the longest on record.

I checked the thermometer outside our kitchen window every single morning, anticipating the first sign of spring — when I could stand on a ladder, nail the hardware to the garage gable and start practicing in hopes of making St. Bernadette School’s basketball team.

When the mercury would not budge, I decided to take action on the first sunny day in March, to climb up and install my new basketball standard, after which I shoveled a half court in the driveway.

Perhaps the sight of a kid bouncing a basketball on patches of ice and clumps of dirty snow might very well have been the kind of scene that Eliot had in mind as a picture of sadness and futility. And, yes, it stayed cold another couple of weeks, and I couldn’t play very long before I would lose the feeling in my shooting hand.

But I did make the team. And Eliot died in 1965 before I could somehow tell him.

Sure, I was naive then; today I am not a kid. I have since known many losses and failures. And we’ve had several more wars and too much suffering, death and despair as a nation. Yet I still believe in the imminence of April and its promise for the future.

Justification for that belief starts with my three children, now grown. They struggle with the world we’ve left them. They call from time to time for help with problems.

But they hungrily pursue their dreams. And even as they plan for themselves, Jackie, a college professor, buys goats in my name as Christmas gifts to relieve poverty in Honduras and Guatemala. Janet, a Chicago teacher, raises funds after school so that teen mothers have storybooks to read to their babies. Mike, a doctor, staffs a free clinic on the longest day of his week.

At Janet’s wedding last summer, her friends gently chided my insufficient effort at recycling. And this winter, the eyes of my students, once they lifted them from phone screens, smoldered with familiar fire.

The world is in better hands than mine. Better than Eliot’s. Hands disentangling us from another war. Healing more of our sick. Reaching out with more compassion for people with different lifestyles, different sexual orientation and different skin.

There may or may not be another giant stone moved from the entrance of a tomb today.

But look around this Easter to witness another kind of astonishment — of countless young men and women rising from winter, seeing the light of hope this April, the kindest month of all.

David McGrath, a former resident of Evergreen Park and Oak Forest, is an emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage.



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