The Universal Notebook: Letting go of Earl

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The last time I saw Earl Cutter he was in pretty rough shape.

He was shaking badly, drooling, and his speech was slurred. I fed him a crabmeat roll with a fork, read him some poems by Dickinson and Auden, and then we unceremoniously wrestled him out of his wheelchair and into bed for a nap.

Ten days later he was dead.

What an awful thing for a friend to do, you must be thinking, evoking such an unflattering image of an old buddy. But Earl knew that’s what real friends are for. To love you enough to tell you the truth. The awful truth.

True friends are people who knew you when, who get you, who don’t let you forget who you are. When I suddenly started sobbing a few hours after being notified of Earl’s death, I quickly realized I wasn’t crying for him, I was crying for me. Two of my best friends – Chris Couch and now Earl Cutter – are gone and I feel abandoned, left behind. 

Earl and I became fast friends 55 years ago in high school. I became a journalist in large part because Earl, two years ahead of me at Westbrook High School, picked me to replace him as the student correspondent on the Westbrook American. 

The buddy I fed and read to was not the sick old man before me, it was the brilliant, irreverent, witty Earl Cutter I knew in high school, the Earl Cutter several generations of Westbrook students came to know and love.

Earl did not go far, but he went deep. After graduating the valedictorian and class wit of the Class of 1965, he went to Bowdoin College, served in the U.S. Army, and then returned to Westbrook High where he spent his entire teaching career.

Earl taught French and Latin at Westbrook for close to 40 years. He was also the voice of Blue Blazes athletics, announcing basketball, soccer, and football games.

Earl’s wife Judy and their children Ben, Drew, and Megan all graduated from WHS. The secret to his success as a teacher is that he loved kids – his own, and his students.

Earl was a born teacher. He loved language. He loved ideas. And he loved Westbrook. He was a local kid who grew up to nurture local kids both by his teachings and his example. He was a Westbrook treasure.

Toward the end of his career, Earl began to feel the weakness and fatigue that were the first signs of multiple system atrophy. Six years ago, at his request, I wrote about his illness in this column. 

This fall, Earl and I talked about letting go. When you get to be our age, ambition just blessedly evaporates. It’s very liberating. Letting go loosens your grip on yourself and lightens your earthly load. We talked about how we had become supporting players in the real-life drama that now stars our children. You let them go, and then you let go. It’s their world now.

Right after I got the call that Earl had died, the sky darkened, the wind and rain picked up, and it began to thunder and lightning. Unusual weather for a November morning.

My lovely wife tried to console me with the idea that Earl was speaking through the thunder. I’m not a big believer in an afterlife, but I am absolutely certain that, in the end, Earl was ready for whatever comes next.

Bless you, my dear friend. You showed me the way one last time.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix, where he also writes the monthly Art Seen feature.