Why? Why was it that in cases of real love the one who is left does not more often follow the beloved by suicide? Only because the living must bury the dead? Because of the measured rites that must be fulfilled after a death? Because it is as though the one who is left steps for a time upon a stage and each second swells to an unlimited amount of time and he is watched by many eyes? Because there is a function he must carry out? Or perhaps, when there is love, the widowed must stay for the resurrection of the beloved – so that the one who has gone is not really dead, but grows and is created for a second time by the soul of the living?
~ Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
The funeral has come and gone. A frantic weekend of trying, and mostly failing, to sleep on a blow-up mattress; driving through rain and tears back and forth between the homes of relatives, the funeral home, the church, the cemetery; getting reacquainted with cousins I haven’t seen in too long, one in particular whom I haven’t seen face to face in nearly a quarter of a century.
The roller coaster ride requisite for such times left me emotionally drawn and quartered.
On the morning of the visitation, my father and I sat on the floor for an hour or so digging through old photographs . . .
. . . of times way before my time, but not his. He’s the one on the left. A handsome young lad, no? These memories belong to him alone . . .
. . . and they carry a weight only he can bear. Some memories however . . .
. . . are all mine. This one made the front page of the Grayville paper on May 21, 1970, just days after the Kent State Massacre. That’s me . . . protesting.
My son? He laughed most of the way through is first real haircut. I’ll never forget the way Papaw and Bob, the local barber who has trimmed the hair and tickled the ears of four generations of Thomas men, joked about the old days: glass bottles of grape Nehi chilling in a lift-top vending machine in the corner; refreshment in twenty-five cent servings; my lack of bravado when confronted by those annoying clippers. Neither my son nor I remember much about our respective trimmings . . .
. . . but we’ll never forget this day. This was as close as my son could get to Papaw’s casket. He sat on the front pew and played his guitar. Tears in his eyes. Other, more concrete and perhaps happier, memories flooding his head.
The man in the casket is not my grandfather. These pictures are not him either. What he was – the essence of the man – lives on in my mind. The way he looked when he smiled, gazing over his glasses or down at the afternoon paper. His gentle sense of humor. His willingness to lend a hand in whatever way the situation demanded. When I think of him, I think differently. I am more compassionate. I let things slide. I find beauty in the simplest of things.
The words of Douglas Hofstadter, from his book I Am a Strange Loop, floated through my head most of the weekend. At the heart of this challenging yet poignant book, amid references to Kurt Gödel, Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica, and Fibonacci sequences, lies a touching memoir about coming to grips with the death of his wife, Carol, of a brain tumor in 1993. This passage resonated with me when I first read it a few summers ago, and it lingers heavy today . . .
What is really going on when you dream or think more than fleetingly about someone you love (whether that person died many years ago or is right now on the other end of a phone conversation with you)? In the terminology of this book, there is no ambiguity about what is going on. The symbol for that person has been activated inside your skull, lurched out of dormancy, as surely as it had an icon that someone had double-clicked. And the moment this happens, much as with a game that has been opened up on your screen, your mind starts acting differently from how it acts in a “normal” context. You have allowed yourself to be invaded by an “alien universal being”, and to some extent the alien takes charge inside your skull, starts pushing things around in its own fashion, making words, ideas, memories, and associations bubble up inside your brain that ordinarily would not do so. The activation of the symbol for the loved person swivels into action whole sets of coordinated tendencies that represent that person’s cherished style, their idiosyncratic way of being embedded in the world and looking out at it. As a consequence, during this visitation of your cranium, you will surprise yourself by coming out with different jokes from those you would normally make, seeing things in a different emotional light, making different value judgments, and so forth . . .
The sad truth is, of course, that no copy is perfect, and that my copies of Carol’s memories are hugely defective and incomplete, nowhere close to the level of detail of the originals. The sad truth Is, of course, that Carol is reduced, in her inhabitation of my cranium, to only a tiny fraction of what she used to be. The sad truth is, my brain’s mosaic of Carol’s essence is far more coarse-grained that the privileged mosaic that resided in her brain. That is the sad truth. Death’s sting cannot be denied. And yet death’s sting is not quite as absolute or as total as it might seem.
When the sun is eclipsed, there remains a corona surrounding it, a circumferential glow. When someone dies, they leave a glowing corona behind them, an afterglow in the souls of those who were close to them. Inevitably, as time passes, the afterglow fades and finally goes out, but it takes many years for that to happen. When, eventually, all of those close ones have died as well, then all the embers will have gone cool, and at that point, it’s “ashes to ashes and dust to dust”.
Memories. They are what we have left. And I’m learning that, at this point, they may be more than enough . . .