March 15, 6:00 PM – SM calls me at work. He had some problems at work in the last few days, so I assume he is calling to talk about it
"My mother called," he says. SM always talks to his mom or to his sister about things that upset him. His mother probably had some reassuring piece of wisdom to share with him.
"What did your mom say?" I ask.
"My Grandma died. They found her today in her home."
"I am so sorry," is all I can say.
That was the beginning of a week-long interruption of our fairly uneventful life. In the following days we flew to a place I’ve never been before, for the death of a woman I’ve never met in person. It turned out to be a longer and more adventurous trip than I expected. Traveling through space was just a small portion of the experience (although it took two days to get to our destination). We moved across time and cultures. I witnessed the emotional journey of people I love trying to cope with Sarah’s death (the ups and the downs; laughing to tears at the memories; crying at the sudden awareness that she is not here any longer for us and she won’t come back). I learned about the procedures we use to sanitize death, making it at the same time much cleaner and much more disturbing. I had to face the paradox of human death: it’s so certain and yet finds us so thoroughly unprepared.
If it lacked the raw pain and devastation associated with the death of a loved one, Sarah’s death was a powerful reminder that there is more to life than our incessant running around stressed out and out of breath. Questions that are usually left at the bottom of our consciousness, ran rushing to the surface: what is the meaning of our existence, what should we do with our life, what is the experience of dying, what death does to the people who survive, what is left of our existence after death. Death is the most extreme and terrifying experience of irreversibility. The awareness that our own death awaits us at the end of the road shapes our lives even if we deny it and try to forget.
When people die, those who knew them keep them alive by telling stories. For a short period, the rushing and background noise of worries and thoughts subside and we allow ourselves to listen. Stories are triggered by a word, an object, a picture, a document, a newspaper clipping, a chain of shared memories in which each story leads to the next. Forgotten events and secrets are discovered in a scrapbook or in a letter. Time warps and leaps back and forth.
This is how I learned about Sarah: by listening to the continuous narration of people who knew her. Sarah was not there in person but she was taking up residence in our mind: our constant conversation about her filled the absence with a surprisingly vivid representation of her. People talked about her and at the same time they talked about themselves: about the pieces of her forever stuck in their soul. The Sarah we were experiencing was not the same person who was here in the flesh a few days earlier, but was not less real.
All the stories about Sarah and her family play as an accelerated course of popular American history and create a complex a network of events, relationships, causes and effects. By looking at the life of another person is easier to realize how our lives are shaped by our time, family history, and external events we don’t control. Perhaps our own choices make a difference in our life. But when we look back at our past, things are just as they are: an organized series of irreversible events leading to us on this day.
Later, the same Wednesday
6:10 PM – SM hangs up. I think how we never got around to visit Sarah. SM had not seen her in more than 20 years and I’ve never met her. Our life had been too narrow to include her: in the last 10 years we had either too little money or too few vacation days to travel to Michigan, or so we told ourselves. Deep inside, we both know that the true reason has little to do with money or time. SM’s family moved progressively away from small town Alpena, first to Ann Arbor, then all the way west to the San Juan Islands, near Seattle. They moved away from their past and their family history; Sarah–fierce, independent, hard, and passionately attached to her place–was left behind. Sarah visited them West a few times, then the contacts became fewer and farther apart. Except for Emma, who traveled to Michigan every year during the summer to stay with her mother.
9:30 PM – Back home, we start planning for the trip. K, from the Bay Area has already reserved a rental car at the Detroit airport. We find tickets on Southwest to fly to Detroit in the morning and SM makes a reservation for an hotel by the airport. In Seattle, Emma has already bought her Seattle-Detroit plane ticket. SM sends an e-mail to Brent: we won’t make it to his New York City wedding on Saturday. SM is sad about it, even more than I am. A lot of people from our University of Oregon days that we have not seen in years would be there. I check my work schedule for next few days, cancel meetings, and send e-mails. SM does the same. In about 1 hour we have made all the necessary arrangements for the trip. In different circumstances, inertia, procrastination, and excruciating planning would get in the way and our day-to-day duties and routines would trap us. But today, everything seems almost too easy.
11:00 PM – SM and I talk more about Sarah. Last time SM went to Alpena he was 23 years old. He is 45 now. SM asks: "What does it mean to visit her only now that she is dead?" What make us lose contact with significant people in our life? Why don’t we pick up the phone any time we think about someone we haven’t seen in some time? I know so well that feeling of paralysis that sometimes gets over us when we think about somebody we miss. I play in my mind all the actions required to call them (go to the computer, open up Address Book, look up their number, pick up the receiver …), then something stops me, I turn back and get to the next thing. It’s almost to preserve the memory of them without tainting it with the reality of a new contact, the fear or laziness to have to recreate a connection that has not be there for a while. Stupid, I know. Worse: mean, because it denies others the recognition that they still exist for us, we miss them, and we enjoy their presence.
(More to come)