Kent Haruf, award-winning novelist, beloved teacher and all-around wonderful human being died this morning, three months shy of his 72nd birthday. He had just finished copyedits for a new novel, Our Souls at Night, scheduled for release next year.
Kent’s novels reach to the heart of what it means to be human, the stories told in prose so spare and quiet the phrases linger in the soul after being read. Washington Post writer Mike Rosenwald calls the fictional town of Holt, on Colorado’s windswept eastern plains, the setting for Kent’s trilogy of Plainsong, Eventide and Benediction, “his version of [Faulkner’s] Yoknapatawpha County. It was as real to him as the world he lived in — maybe more real.”
Kent’s bone-deep knowledge of the sweep of the plains and the lives spun out in their isolated expanses comes from growing up there among people like his characters. He writes their lives with compassion, understanding our capacity for grace even, or perhaps especially, in the hardest of times. Their lives sing hymns of grace.
My friend John Calderazzo, writer and faculty at Colorado State University, remembers hearing Kent read a memoir passage from West of Last Chance detailing with loving humor the spread of food at 1950s-era church potluck that featured quite a few varieties of Jello.
After the reading, John writes, “I told him that the facts, the intense focus, and the precision of the details of time and place reminded me of James Agee’s A Death in the Family (my idea of one of the greatest memoirs ever written). He got this very slow deep smile, and he said that Agee had been his model all along and that no one had ever “caught him” at it. … That was a lovely moment, and that is how I will remember him separate from his wonderful work.”
In my small town of Salida (population 5,500 people) in rural Southern Colorado, Kent Haruf was simply Kent, a regular at the coffeehouse, a patron of the library, an attendee of concerts and plays, a hospice volunteer, part of the Buddhist sangha, a neighbor, a friend.
He was modest, unassuming, funny, and wise. When he asked, “How are you?” he listened to the answer. Because he wanted to know. He cared.
After the love of my life, Richard Cabe, came home to hospice care for terminal brain cancer in fall of 2011, Kent and his wife Cathy stopped by one morning. Kent sat down next to Richard’s wheelchair, I poured him a cup of coffee, and they plunged into a discussion of the meaning of the Buddhist concept of metta, lovingkindness, in daily life.
An hour later, Richard was tiring and Kent got up to leave. After he put on his jacket, Kent kissed my cheek and whispered, “Thank you for letting me come. It’s an honor.” He came back regularly, and always thanked me for “letting him” visit.
Last Saturday, I walked to Cathy and Kent’s with a bag of scones warm from the oven. “Come in! Come in!” said Cathy. “Go on through. Kent wants to see you.”
Kent greeted me with a welcoming smile, showed me a copy of the cover design he had just gotten for Our Souls at Night, and asked me what I was working on. I told him about my aha! realization about my memoir-in-progress, Bless the Birds:
“I finally understood that it’s not about our journey with brain cancer. It’s about the choices we made that shaped us into people who could live that journey and face his death with love.”
Kent beamed and took my hand. “Yes! That is exactly why people will want to read it. You’ve got it now.”
I felt like I had just won the National Book Award.
My heart hurts tonight. But as I go back to revising Bless the Birds tomorrow, I will keep Kent’s joyous smile in mind. He was right: I do have it now (finally).
Thank you, Kent, for that blessing. And thank you Cathy, and both of your families, for sharing Kent. The quiet grace of his voice lives on.