The pencil rolled out of his hand and fell at his feet. The Professor was crying. I believe it was the first time I saw him in tears, but I had the feeling that I’d seen these emotions many times before. I placed my hand on his.
“Do you understand?” he said. “You can find the sums of all the natural numbers.”
My footsteps fell in with the Professor’s, and Root’s tennis shoes swung back and forth in time.
I realized I had seen two men cry this evening. I had, of course, seen Root’s tears countless times before — as an infant, when he’d wanted to be held or fed; and later, during tantrums, or when he lost his grandmother. And, for that matter, at the moment he came into this world. But these tears were different, and no matter how I tried to wipe them away, they seemed to flow from a place I could never reach.
Sometimes it is enough to notice the power of a passage without fully probing its subtleties; yesterday I’d found this final passage affecting but I saw nothing else; perhaps when language is the flower the mind is content to rest there for a while and dote upon it without trying to do too much. But this morning I see much more clearly.
Note the parallels, the unspoken parallels left to the reader and not the narrator to see, creating what we commonly call dramatic irony. At first the housekeeper has the unexplained feeling that she had seen the emotions expressed by the older man who cried many times before; later she recalls the times when she had seen her own child cry. At that later point in the plot she remarks the difference between the way Root used to cry — as a child looking for comfort and consolation — and the way he does now, which turns out to be an implicit accusation. And so we are meant to see that the feelings she saw betrayed by the Professor’s tears were perhaps those of a child, which is really another way of saying that these feelings are needs that lie at the heart of every person — a need to be told that everything is alright, a need for shelter, for the sort of sanctuary only another person can give.
To render the parallels between the two men more complete, the writer provides as backdrop their consuming passions: numbers for one, baseball for the other. Yet neither mathematics nor sports can calm the emotions that have cut into them, and the housekeeper, whose role has always been to tend to the needs of others cannot put back in order the mess of hurt and harm she can see but not fully comprehend.
Sandwiched between these two passages where the two men are in the grip of turbulent emotions, we find the narrator savoring what appears to her to be the resolution of an event where everything turns out right. It is only by considering all three passages that the reader gets a hint of the irony that wraps around her perspective.
Nonetheless, through it all, she is there, beside them, trying her best: asking questions, listening, reaching out. Perhaps full understanding will always escape us; perhaps it is enough to be present.