Monday, July 20, 2009

Remembering Frank McCourt

I am saddened today by the news that author Frank McCourt passed away. I read his first Memoir, Angela's Ashes, not long after it came out and it immediately became my favorite book. It was one of those rare reads that reaches you so deeply that you feel like you have grown as a person. The kind you finish in a day or two and immediately begin to buy copies for everyone you know. I am sure that some of you reading this blog have read the book upon my recommendation, or perhaps on your own accord. At any rate, I hope it reaches you the same way it has reached me.

I know some people did not enjoy the book as much as I because they found it depressing. The situation is most certainly heartbreaking - being raised in Ireland in such poverty, siblings starving and even dying in the bed next to him. What I found so inspirational about the memoir was Mr. McCourt's ability to shed light to his story by bringing humor through his innocent perspective as a child who knew no other life. There is nothing in my lifetime that could ever compare to what he endured in his childhood. If he can keep that in perspective and share his experience in such a moving memoir, I have no excuses to let anything hold me back. That is the inspiration his words bring to me. He was a wonderful storyteller and through it all he kept his sense of humor. Or perhaps that is how he developed one.

In 2006, Frank McCourt came to Iowa City through the University of Iowa Lecture Series. I attended his lecture about his years teaching and he was an inspiration as always. Afterward, some friends and I went to a local bar and before I had finished my first drink, I saw Frank McCourt walk in the door. Of course, I did what anyone does when they run into someone they idolize, I told everyone who would listen, "That's Frank McCourt! You guys, Frank McCourt is here! Oh my God I don't know what to do, Frank McCourt is sitting across the room from me." Then I remembered to breathe.

Normally I hate being in these situations because I do not want to invade anyone's privacy. As much as I want to let someone know how much I appreciate them and how much of a fan I am, I do not want to interrupt anyone's free time to gush incoherently about how great they are. I think fame would be a curse. I can't imagine not being able to go about my normal life without being interrupted and having to act interested in what people have to say when really you just want to eat a sandwich. That would be difficult, but I really did want to meet him.

Luckily, icebreakers are much easier when the person is Irish. How do you let an Irishman know you appreciate him? You buy him a drink! I asked the waitress to bring is next drink on me. When she brought it over she pointed me out and we did a "cheers" across the bar. I'm sure I blushed from head to toe, but I was honored to buy the man a drink.

Later (after his meal) when I was getting up, Mr. McCourt waved me over to his table. He was sitting with a couple of people on the UI Lecture Committee and a young man who worked for his publisher and was traveling with him. I sat down and talked to them a bit and Frank McCourt was every bit as charming as I expected he would be. He ended up leaving shortly after but the rest of us stayed and had a few more drinks together.

I exchanged emails with the guy who worked for the publisher but it has been a long time. When I heard the news today, I found the email address and explained that I had met them in Iowa City. I expressed my condolences and asked that he let Mr. McCourt's family and loved ones know how much he was appreciated by so many of us. Frank McCourt truly was a national treasure.

I was not sure if I would get a response or if the email address was still current. To my surprise, he responded right away and told me he remembered the night. After a few email exchanges back and forth, he confessed what Frank McCourt whispered after he waved me over to the table. The following is from his email...

But I distinctly remember when the waitress came by and said that there was a lady that wanted to buy him a drink. And his response was, "Tell her I accept." When the waitress came back with the drink he suggested we invite you to come by the table. As you were approaching - he could see you, and I couldn't... he said you were my type.

I'll never forget him saying that he thought you were my type, and that since he was happily married, he'd happily be my 75 year old Irish, bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize winning wingman! And whatever happened in Iowa City, stayed in Iowa City.

This morning I was sad when I heard of his death, and today I have had a good laugh to know that when I met this man I have so much respect for, he was acting like a frat boy. (How many senior citizens know what a wingman is?!?!) The man truly was someone who comes along only once in a lifetime. There will never be another Frank McCourt, and I know at least one person who will have a hell of a time finding another 75 year old Irish, bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize winning wingman.

May he rest in peace. He's always been an inspiration to me, but I could not adore Frank McCourt any more than I do at this very moment.

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