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  • Writer's picturejeff wing

Little and Big John’s Epiphany

Updated: Aug 3, 2018

The Universe giveth, and the Universe taketh away (to paraphrase), as has been seen. John Ridland, UCSB Professor Emeritus of English, can say a word or two on the subject, and has. A radiantly written new work that is surely the summation of a beribboned lifetime of poetry, prose, and translation, Epitome and Epiphany(Dowitcher Press 2017) delicately plumbs the complex depths of an early loss that staggered John and his wife,Muriel. And just as they were beginning a brand-new life at a new academic posting – on bluffs overlooking the sparkling Pacific, no less.

What does the universe taketh, exactly? The soul (excuse me)? Hard to pin down, that. The “end” of a life is an emotional and physical hurricane whose category is informed equally by the mechanical, the whimsical, and the personally bearable. A loved one passes. Sometimes out of the show-closing maelstrom comes an unheralded burst of light that requires a brief averting of the eyes.

“I remembered another dream,” John says. “I was walking Little John on my shoulder outside in moonlight, and he spoke a real word: ‘Moon.’“

Little John. Over time, John and Muriel Ridland’s separate dream lives would intersect, and around such dreamscape exotica as this: a boy on two legs, walking and speaking and gesturing with unimpeded energy. In John Ridland’s dream this night, the boy – their Little John – had clearly articulated the single word; a heart-seizing astonishment that sent dad running back into the house with him, breathless with joy.

“In the dream, I rushed in excitedly to tell his mother the amazing news,” John continues, “and I woke Muriel, shaking her shoulder. Suddenly, I found I had actually shaken her awake, and we were both lying there, awake in the dark, and I was telling her what had happened in the dream.

‘In the dream, I was crying,’ I explained. And Muriel said, ‘Yes. I heard you’.”

Dreams and Responsibilities

In 1961, John and Muriel Ridland made the move to Santa Barbara from Upland, in San Bernardino County, John accepting a position as associate professor of English at the vaunted University of California here; UCSB, as it was colloquially known to locals.

Muriel’s 35-mile commute to teach at L.A. State College (now California State University in Los Angeles) and a baby on the way decided them; Santa Barbara’s ocean breezes and beautiful seaside milieu, they imagined, would salve the rigors of late-stage pregnancy and land them in paradise as well. “We’d had two very sociable years in the very welcoming Claremont community,” John says. “But it was a no-brainer: cool South Coast over Inland Empire oven.”

John Ridland, Professor Emeritus of English at UC Santa Barbara – and through the scholarly decades a plaudit-festooned poet and translator – looks the role. He is a tall man whom you might describe as stately, but for the set of a mouth that suggests an ongoing, deeply held bemusement. Soft spoken, erudite, a stealth speaker of few words, when he arises from a chair and unfolds to his full height, he has something of the static grace of a heron. Muriel is his complement; voluble, immediately open, warm, eloquent, and of an approachable stature. Ridland taught at UCSB for 42 years, retiring in 2005.

In 1961, the two were excitedly scribbling out the ad-hoc blueprint of a new life in a new town and summoning the necessary energies. Muriel’s pregnancy, though, was not going to plan. An examination revealed an anomaly that would take John and Muriel’s daughter from them at birth. As it happened, over the course of two stunned days, Muriel’s mother too, would pass, from a cancer she’d been battling; having just posted from New Zealand a cheering note of encouragement to Muriel and John over the imminent new arrival, their little girl.

“I included Muriel’s mother’s last letter (in the book) for the beautiful note of hope it strikes like an orchestral triangle––hopes that would not be heard again until far into the symphony, and struck from her terminal hospital bed,” John says.

“No cause and effect, sheer coincidence – but you notice the Fates like to work in parcels of three. What we think now is how staggering these days must have been for her father, not a man to examine his feelings.”

The curious third blow – Muriel’s father had a beloved dog, and the cosmos, in its mathematical majesty, had even seen fit to pluck away its life as these darkling hours passed. John and Muriel put their heads down and moved forward, conceiving again, imagining a still-bright future along this necessary fork in the road.

Special vs Ordinary

Some two years later, John heard Muriel shout his name and ran to the bedroom of their 21-month old, John – Little John, as he’d been  nicknamed – to find Muriel bending in a panic over his son, and Little John in a convulsive state. The maddened drive to the hospital and harried care there did nothing to mitigate or explain what was happening, nor would an explanation ever be forthcoming in the remaining four years of Little John’s speechless, not to say joyless, life.

Little John images by Donald Lent

Muted “benchmark” warning bells from the medical establishment had long since alerted the Ridlands to the possibility that Little John’s “case” might be one of special needs. His speech, motor skills, and socialization, among other metrics, had indicated a noteworthy lag in progress.

At the same time, there were medical professionals who assured John and Muriel that these markers could be broadly interpreted, and the parents grasped at these cautionary assurances. Then they thought it a sound idea to get a second opinion, and consulted a young pediatrician with a reputation for being laudably thorough. They received her opinion as one receives a firmly delivered slap.

“We had followed Little John’s progress by consulting Dr. Spock’s guide and another condensed pamphlet, and were able to twist the descriptions in Little John’s favor. The second, younger pediatrician’s frank dismissal of all we had convinced ourselves of––‘Why, he’s way behind what he should be!’––pronounced it seemed with satisfaction at outwitting an older practitioner, was devastating. Because we had to realize she was right.”

On that warm winter afternoon, the parents had waited in terror for the alien shadow to pass across his face and the smile to return him to himself. J.R., Epitome and Epiphany

In the period following Little John’s Convulsion, though – the spiritually seismic event that divides his brief life into two distinct epochs—a Rise and a gentle, irreversible Decline—John and Muriel Ridland would come to understand how permeable is the “wall” we famously hit at the supposed end of endurance. “For all of us these days were like a boxer taking three punches in quick succession, to the ribs, the chest, and the head,” John says. “We staggered but did not fall down, and the remaining rounds were perhaps a little less difficult to fight through, thanks to this opening one being so rough.”

Epitome and Epiphany

In Epitome and Epiphany, Ridland has composed a compact, revelatory account of Little John’s foreshortened life. Half-prose, half-poem (…An Abstract and an Afterpiece, as the cover states), the book’s filigreed and incandescent language allows no hiding place, as there was none. Illuminated by the loving and classically turned sketches of friend and fellow faculty member Donald Lent, neither is the book mere reportage, or a primer on dealing with loss. John and Muriel and Little John’s journey, for want of a less shopworn term, was as unchoreographed – as ringingly human, that is – as you please; that bruising disarray whose stress fractures heal with all the added strength this life of wanton accident can assure. Those years were complicated, and they shone with a luster of their own.

“More than four years of their lives would be occupied in assisting him down from the highest plateaus of his achievement, and those years, despite the labor and almost intolerable sadness of watching his descent, would be, against all expectations, four of the best years of their lives.” – John Ridland, Epitome and Epiphany

Close on the heels of the Convulsion and Little John’s discharge from the hospital, John and Muriel were made to understand that, whatever had happened – and it was loosely characterized as a “febrile convulsive episode” flowing from an undefined progressive neuromuscular disorder – it had sent their small son down a one-way path of what would be an increasing cognitive deficit. Little John would never walk, never speak. He had reached his zenith at 21 months.

He would, however—occasionally and without preamble or provocation—beam an unprompted, open-mouthed, and wholly ecstatic smile at a visitor, knocking them silly – in one instance prompting from a normally non-demonstrative guest “..why, he’s a lovely little fellow!”

These instances grew fewer and fewer, but Little John still managed to wield considerable influence, and in unexpected ways. John explains.

“By his last year, Little John was joined by two siblings, also still in diapers, and we needed helpers. These two new helpers took to Little John, quickly found what he needed and learned to supply it, and through his death and the aftermath continued to stay on and help with the younger ones. We have been in touch with both of Little John’s helpers now for nearly 40 years. Both have told us how Little John changed their lives at the time, turning one from a casual C student to a serious one, the other finding her career in speech therapy, thanks to seeing how Little John had fallen short of speaking, beyond the reach of therapy, but that others could be helped.”

John and Muriel Ridland, youngsters themselves when they came to UCSB in ’61, have seen some action; decades of quotidian flux, friends come and gone, their adoptive home campus realizing itself in architectural leaps and bounds. Always there was Little John, a still-point in the colorful, circuitous commotion of their headlong lives, a striking figure viewed through an increasingly frosted pane of glass as hours and years carried the Ridlands forward. Little John is six years old. 

“As the years went along, day by day, hour by hour, the scrapings of sorrow grew louder and darker until they eclipsed the joys,” John says now, “and inevitably drowned them out in his last weeks. Yet even then he could reach for happiness…”

“There was one smile, however, very late in his life, whose special light put in question, for a moment only and in an inconceivable contradiction, the whole system by which they understood him. It had been a smile that seemed to show not just appreciation but comprehension. He died the next day.” John Ridland, Epitome and Epiphany

First and Last Kisses

To the question, does Little John still inhabit your dreams? John Ridland says this: “I have to suppose there have been more dreams of him, but I don’t dream, or remember what dreams I have, very much.” A heart-twisting reminder, perhaps, of the elastic gulf between “today” and a largely inapproachable “yesterday” whose resonances are felt most deeply in dreams. This is where Little John yet lives.

At physical death, all our memories and hoarded sensations, our Information Architecture (as certain forgiving scientists are hesitantly calling it) may be a flotilla of faintly concentrated light headed for the stars – bearing outward that picnic in the woods with your parents, Friday night ball games back in school, the time you slammed your thumb in the car door, dad’s rare laughter when in the presence of your uncle, your utterly electric first kiss, Little John’s toothy, incandescent smile… the race’s collective treasure chest of cherished neuronal mementos.

Can these things be obliterated? Thermodynamics says no. Did you fail that 4th-period physics quiz?

Yes, it can be jarring—insufferable, that is—to imagine the end of the body, the end of a beloved son, say. Time doesn’t stand still. But. Glass half-full – moment by moment, at this very moment, and everywhere you can imagine – innumerable First Kisses and Toothy Smiles are being liberated to drift away like fireflies, happily wander the Big Room, and haunt. Alongside a footloose Little John.


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