Jan. 21, 2012

At the Cancer Clinic

by Ted Kooser

She is being helped toward the open door
that leads to the examining rooms
by two young women I take to be her sisters.
Each bends to the weight of an arm
and steps with the straight, tough bearing
of courage. At what must seem to be
a great distance, a nurse holds the door,
smiling and calling encouragement.
How patient she is in the crisp white sails
of her clothes. The sick woman
peers from under her funny knit cap
to watch each foot swing scuffing forward
and take its turn under her weight.
There is no restlessness or impatience
or anger anywhere in sight. Grace
fills the clean mold of this moment
and all the shuffling magazines grow still.

"At the Cancer Clinic" by Ted Kooser, from Delights & Shadows. © Copper Canyon Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this date in 1952, William Shawn (books by this author) took up the reins of The New Yorker, after the death of his predecessor and the magazine's founder, Harold Ross. Ross, a lifelong heavy smoker, was diagnosed with cancer of the windpipe the previous summer. In December, Ross went up to Boston for a surgery to remove his right lung and died of heart failure on the operating table. William Shawn edited the magazine for 35 years thereafter. Shawn guided the magazine toward a more serious tone. He was quiet, and gentle, but on this point and many others, he was firm. He wanted The New Yorker to reflect a "new awareness" among its writers and readers. In the 1960s, Dorothy Parker criticized the magazine's utter lack of humor, and Shawn himself later expressed some regret that he hadn't had many humorists on staff, but in 1975, New York Times book critic John Leonard said, "Shawn changed The New Yorker from a smarty-pants parish tip sheet into a journal that altered our experience instead of just posturing in front of it."

France's King Louis XVI was beheaded in Paris on this date in 1793, one of tens of thousands of victims of the French Revolution. He had ascended to the throne in 1774, when he was 20 years old, and he had inherited a mess. The kingdom was nearly bankrupt, the result of lavish spending by his predecessors. He was well liked by his subjects at first, although they were unhappy with his wife because she was a foreigner: Marie Antoinette of Austria. He was intelligent and compassionate, but he was indecisive, and conservative in military action.

By 1788, the unemployment rate in Paris was approaching 50 percent. Crops were failing and food prices were skyrocketing. Crippling bouts of depression left the king unable to make important decisions. The Estates-General, which was a national legislative assembly, curtailed his powers to such a degree that he was virtually under house arrest. He and his family attempted an escape in 1791, but were captured; in 1792, the newly elected National Convention declared France a republic, and formally arrested the king for treason. He was indicted in December, tried and convicted on January 15, 1793, and sentenced to death by guillotine on January 20, with the sentence to be carried out the next day. He spent his last evening with his family.

The former king arose early, around five o'clock, on the cold, wet morning of January 21. Louis's valet helped him dress, and he was brought to an Irish priest, Henry Essex Edgeworth, who heard his last confession and administered the Mass. By eight, he was brought to a green carriage in the courtyard of the Temple prison; he asked Father Edgeworth to accompany him, and the two men took their seats in the carriage, opposite a pair of gendarmes, for the two-hour ride to the Place de la Révolution. They recited psalms together as the carriage moved in procession, led by drummers to drown out any expressions of support for the king. Citizens armed with pikes and guns lined the procession's route, shouting epithets.

The king stepped out of the carriage and removed his outer garments, refusing any offers of help, and folded them neatly. The gendarmes made a move to bind his hands, but Louis recoiled in horror, and a struggle seemed imminent, until Father Edgeworth reminded him that Jesus had suffered his hands to be bound on Good Friday. Louis hesitated.

"With a handkerchief, Sire," added Charles Sanson, the executioner, in a tone of respect. Finally, the king agreed.

"So be it, then, that too, my God!" Louis said with resignation, and offered his hands to be bound. He leaned on Edgeworth's arm as he made his way over the rough path to the scaffold, but ascended the steps alone, with strength and determination. Upon reaching the top, he addressed the people:

"I die innocent of all the crimes laid to my charge; I pardon those who have occasioned my death; and I pray to God that the blood you are going to shed may never be visited on France."

He would have said more, but a man on horseback called for the drums, and the crowd called for the execution, which was hastily carried out. A young guard picked up the severed head and promenaded it around the scaffold. The stunned silence was broken with a cry of "Vive la République!" and, before long, thousands of voices were cheering the death of the king.

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