Birth and death are too fucking abstract. And, to continue with this tired and painfully obvious assertion, it’s odd how such diametrically opposed concepts share the same inconceivability.
Here’s one example: the day before our son was born, I was still unable to think of him as anything more than a vague possibility. While I understood on some basic level that his birth was imminent, the idea of new life springing from nothingness was too much to fully comprehend. He wasn’t real until I held him — kicking & crying, blinking at this strange new world he’d been pulled into.
Here’s another example: in the spring of 2006, I knew my dad was going to die. My family had known for months as brain cancer tends to run a pretty predictable course. I knew he would eventually fade from this life into nothingness, from a state of being into some undefined state of non-being. I knew this but could not understand it. It wasn’t until I came into the front room of our house (to a hospital bed between a pair of bookshelves, rainy gray light streaming through an eastern window, him not breathing) that it became real.
These opposing concepts are too big for us to circumscribe with any semblance of understanding. This wouldn’t be so bad if the need to understand wasn’t hardwired into our earthbound monkey-brains. These incomprehensible situations confuse us and we’re left to run through a checklist of cosmic possibilities. Maybe there’s nothing to understand. Maybe there’s something that we’re not privy to. Maybe it’s total chaos or maybe it’s a beautifully orchestrated plan. Maybe we should just stick to drinking & praying & crying & sending nicely designed birth/death announcements.
Death is obviously the harder side of this coin. Initially, when someone dies, we try to convert (through some desperate mental alchemy) the abstract into the real. We try to distill memory into something tangible, to transform residual feelings into something physical in the world we still occupy.
So these remnants, of who someone was, of what they were to us, go through some form of transubstantiation. They become a tombstone or a freshly turned plot of land. They become an urn. They become the bend in the river where we spill their ashes into the meandering current on a spring afternoon. These brief ceremonies help. They give us anchors to return to, places where we can stand and say, “see, this cut of earth is proof of a life gone by, a testament to a real person no longer with us.”
But geography & time conspire and these things & places lose meaning — we move and grow and life continues.
As of today, May 3rd 2016, my dad will have been dead for a decade. He died on a Wednesday at home in a small town in a New England valley. It rained in the morning and cleared in afternoon. That evening, I went for a run through the the town center and down the dirt road, past the shallow pond and through the low cornfields. I ran and the world spun on.
But this is a snapshot of my dad’s life.
He taught English for three decades and loved teaching. He cared deeply about his students and the kids he had as advisees, players, dorm residents, etc. He was a self-taught musician who finger-picked folk & bluegrass on guitar and banjo. During the summers, he sailed and kayaked and explored our stretch of Long Island Sound. He loved Dylan and Seeger and Guthrie. He loved Thoreau and Dickens and Twain. He loved my mom and sister and me and the succession of orange house cats we had throughout the years.
He was quiet and funny but serious about the things that he felt mattered — the lifelong importance of education, general acts of human decency, and Monty Python. He hated administrative nonsense, crass stupidity, and George W. Bush.
In short, he was my father and for most of my life, he was a best friend.
I can tell you about him but I cannot conjure up his true being. There are only words left and words can’t carry the weight of a full life.
Here’s one take: life is nature and nature has no plan. It’s the wild spinning of an infinite number of imperfect gears. It’s a clattering system that whirls and lurches and races and soars and crashes. It knows no judgement: it plagues crops in the fields and fells sparrows on the side of a farm road with absolute cosmic indifference. It pushes thin seedlings up through the bitter silt left by winter flooding. It thaws the ice and fills the rivers and warms the late April air. It grows wild without plan or purpose, running thick creepers over a rusted thresher, a new canopy over barren trees, a yellow glaze of dandelions across a cracked parking lot. And sometimes it grows cancer cells in the brains of those we love most. It is chaotic & terrible and beautiful & divine. Ultimately, it’s what we have and we have no real say anyhow.
Here’s one resolution: birth and death are abstract bookends and who gives a shit — it’s what happens in between that’s the heart of the matter.
During our time, we are the living echoes of those who have loved & left us.We are their moving breathing monuments. We carry them in our words & deeds, in our blood & bones, in what we create, in how we teach, in the paths we run, and in every moment we have before becoming fertilizer for next year’s geraniums.
Someday we’ll all return to the earth. At some point, we’ll all become memories. God willing, we won’t end up as the subject of some rambling sophomoric post on life & death.
My father, who he was in this world, is gone. He’s long since been carried downstream by the Deerfield river and out into Long Island Sound. The river runs and the tides change and nobody is any the wiser.
There’s sunlight in the backyard and an orange cat asleep on the couch. It is spring in Vermont. I am the echo of a good man. I sing to my son.