My wife and I have intimate conversations often, it is one of the joys of marriage, and she and I were discussing death the other day. Her grandmother had just died at the age of 92. My wife explained it this way, "When someone dies, the world feels a little less complete. Bird songs aren't as joyful, and sunrises are slightly less beautiful." Displaying, as she often does, the magnificence of unedited, awkward, and spontaneous verbal poetry. She was also correct. C.S. Lewis opens his book A Grief Observed with another observation about death:
No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.
I still feel this way, not everyday...today.
There are two things that are still difficult for me to do six years after my mom died when I was 27 (she was 46).
I have a hard time remembering truly happy moments with her...on command. Happy moments enter my consciousness at random moments and seldom on the anniversary of her death. Glimpses of her nymph-like smile...brief auditory illusions of her laughter enter my mind. But the majority of my memories are neither happy nor sad, they are the memories of everyday activities, evening dinners and the question which ever looms over the head of a teenager, "Have you finished your homework?" I remember watching videotapes with her on many occation, though none as awkward as the time we watched The Hunger, just the two of us and an erotic vampire film. I remember feeling both uncomfortable being aroused by the film, in my mom's presence, while at the same time finding the situation hilarious. This moment just came to mind. There are many more like it, I just can't remember them on demand. In all honesty, I remember my mom as a happy person, a person who added joy to the world. Which is why I have my other difficulty.
I can't understand my mom's addiction, and eventual death due to how it ravaged her body, to heroin. I try, by reading/watching/listening to and about other addicts. I know the narrative of my mom's addictive cycle, I can see each step of her hopeless journey. That's not what I can't understand. I know the things that led to her addiction. What I can't understand is the overwhelming power of it, how addiction stole my mom from me...day by day. Oddly, some really shallow things help. They are a poor substitute for true knowledge, and seem trite when I think hard on them, but they help. These things include the music of the Velvet Underground (in particular, you guessed it, Heroin) and Iggy Pop, the films Permanent Midnight (which I saw just after her death) and Trainspotting, the book and film versions of Razor's Edge, and the writings of C.S. Lewis among other things.
I am the only member of my immediate family I know of who believes in God. I was raised secularly. Strange as it sounds my mom found comfort, though she was baffled by it, in my belief. She once asked if I believed, expecting me (the first college student in my family) to laugh at the absurdity of the question. I told her I did and her response lingers with me to this day, "Really?" Her eyes looked at me...proud, confused, unbelieving, yet hopeful. I never was able to tell her that hope was what faith was all about ("Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen" Hebrews 11:1). It isn't about "knowledge," little of life is about actual knowledge. This is why Socrates asked us to know ourselves, that is a difficult enough task. Let alone the ability to acquire actual knowledge of something else.
I was notified of my mom's death by answering machine. A series of messages of an ever-worsening condition. Siezures...followed by emergency medical action, my wife and I later read the medical records to piece together a timeline, to see if there was an heroic effort to save my mom. There was. It is not the best way to be notified of death, answering machine, I think it is the worst. I also wish that my mom had been buried not cremated, I would have liked to have had the chance to speak, to say my own words. Instead, I will share the two poems I think best capture the way I feel. One is gender confused (for my situation not its own) and the other is written from an older generation to a younger one, but they will have to do.
The first is by W.H. Auden (and yes it's the poem from Four Weddings and a Funeral but that is such a lovely scene.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
The second is by Wordsworth:
SURPRISED by joy--impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport--Oh! with whom
But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind--
But how could I forget thee? Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss?--That thought's return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart's best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.