Chanson de Roland

…one of my brothers
      I took a walk the other night along the shore of the Mississippi Sound. There was a star, about fifteen degrees above the horizon, more in the East, I believe. I thought about the close friendship that had been shared among the three of us – Roland, Vic and myself – since freshman high-school days. That is a long time, some sixty-four years.
      Maybe it was the North Star, or Venus. I don’t know. In years gone by, before Google, Vic or I might have said, “Let’s ask Roland.” We used to say that often, in jest, mostly to tease Roland. But the fact is he knew many things that we might not, and had an analytic ability that sometimes could cut to the heart of a problem.
     And he probably would have known about the star, as I think he took a course in astronomy at Tulane. He went there on scholarship, you know. It was an academic scholarship for having led his high school class in four-year average. When he was at Tulane, I was at Loyola, and we often took the same public transportation, an hour-long ride first on the Desire streetcar, from which we transferred to the St. Charles line. They stopped and started, rocking from side to side. Amazingly, he could spend that hour in study.
     And when he graduated from Tulane he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.
     That was before grade inflation, by the way.
     He had other scholarships, too: five in number from LSU. How was that possible? In our high school days, there was something called the state rally, at LSU. Students were selected by their schools to participate each year in one – and only one – subject. Roland was selected to represent Holy Cross in New Orleans for four different subjects in four years, including as I remember, math and physics. He took first place in each one and with each award came a scholarship to LSU.
      Four may or may not have been a record. I don’t know. But I will bet that five was and maybe still stands. How did he get five? He also edited the school newspaper, The Bulletin. It too won first place, and made him eligible for the fifth scholarship.
     The above is just a way of saying that his mind was one of really unusual ability. He could have been anything he wanted to be, but he chose an existence simpler than other pursuits may have demanded.
      Though he did not follow an academic career, he was always fond of having studied French. Thus the title above, but above all he loved sports. In high school he lettered in track and wrestling, taking the state championship in the latter. He had a good command of the English language, too, and over the years some of us wondered how good a sports reporter he might have been.
      In a way, most of those who knew him would have been surprised at his choice of a business career, but he did excel in his chosen company, rising to become a trusted underwriter and vice-president of a major international insurance brokerage house.
      Another love was singing. At Tulane, he had important solo roles in several Gilbert and Sullivan operas. That continued even after his graduation and discharge from the military. It was in those return performances that he met the lady named Carol, a rehearsal pianist. She was to become his wife of some fifty years, the mother of their four gifted children.
      To her eternal credit, it was Carol who insisted on taking in our mother, who had become an invalid, for almost the entire last two years of her life.
     Anyone who has been to Feelings Café in the upper 9th ward over the years may have heard Roland sing to the accompaniment of Carol’s piano. Together they became a fixture on Saturday nights.
      That changed after Katrina. They had evacuated to Shreveport, where Carol died after a long fight with cancer. She was courageous in those months.
     That was a rough time for Roland, and I look back now and wonder whether medical science would agree that such an ordeal could trigger an onslaught of Alzheimer’s. One might be persuaded that he is no longer the man I describe in the foregoing. I call him Roland, and he knows me and calls me by name. He remembers and enjoys talking about some happenings out of the deep past, but no longer knows what day it is, or cares. Does he still have reason enough to make some decisions? To that I answer a resounding “Yes!” and know that if nothing else, he has decided to be accepting of his present state. He is content. He does not complain.
      That depth of decision can only come from inner strength.
    One of the songs he used to sing was “Invictus,” by William Ernest Henley. The lyrics are the following:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the year
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishment the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
      I can still hear those lyrics in my mind’s ear, sung in a strong baritone.
     Roland now resides in a well-run, cheery, assisted-living facility. The words to “Invictus” echo his acceptance.