Paradise, still lost

In the mornings, there was Milton.

Dr. Pi, as my brother and I called him, favored structured classics that most people would consider stilted. Chekhov — he loved “Uncle Vanya.” Shakespeare — light reading.

But Milton held his attention. The 17th century English poet is probably best known for his epic poem, “Paradise Lost.” It is the tale of the fall of man.

Dr. Pi memorized much, if not all of it.

And that is saying something. “Paradise Lost” comprises more than 10,000 lines of verse, by some accounts.

In the mornings, when he visited, you could hear him quietly reciting the lines as an opening mantra to his day. That was Dr. Pi’s routine. Milton was his daily “in the beginning.”

This is how “Paradise Lost” opens:

Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit

Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast

Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,

With loss of Eden, till one greater Man

Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,

Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top

Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire

That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,

In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth

Rose out of Chaos: Or if Sion Hill

Delight thee more, and Siloa’s Brook that flow’d

Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence

Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,

That with no middle flight intends to soar

Above th’ Aonian Mount, while it pursues

Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.

Early in his education, Dr. Pi had become enamored of mathematics, particularly calculus. So much so that he wrote his own calculus text that, astonishingly, made the stuff understandable. That is the link to his nickname. Dr. Pi literally wrote the book on calculus and the military paid him to teach it.

When he was traveling with the military on enormous aircraft carriers, Milton went along.

His real home was a little “cabin” in Iowa City where there were the barest of creature comforts and room for him alone.

To see his friends, he would climb into a rickety old van and travel Iowa.

On one of those trips, to Stratford in Hamilton County, I photographed him gesturing dramatically at the base of street signs marking the intersection of Shakespeare and Milton.

The cabin and van were hallmarks of his eccentric life, embracing old languages and shunning that for which most people hungered.

So it was unwelcome when his banker parents died and left him with significant means.

The wealth perplexed him, but he duly bought a condo and then promptly panicked.

What color to paint it? How to furnish it?

I boxed up a set of dishes I thought would go well in his home, ready to bestow on the first chance.

Then the stock market fell and, without having to lift a finger, Dr. Pi lost thousands of dollars. Oh, financially he could afford to lose it, but his childhood lessons of restraint wouldn’t let him forgive.

Next he realized that he hated living in a condo, no matter the color of the walls.

He called, asking to visit.

But I was too busy at the time.

The next call was from my brother.

Dr. Pi had taken his own life.

I sank to my knees and wailed the great anguish one might think Milton would tap into.

That was many years ago.

The dishes I had packed for him are still in their box.

Paradise, my dear friend Dr. Pi, is still lost.

Jane Curtis is editor of The Messenger.


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