Saturday, November 5, 2011

Death and Time

I know I said I probably wouldn't blog again for awhile. But last night I lay awake for awhile, things running through my head, and I knew I needed to process it in writing, put it into words. I'm still at my parents house in Buffalo, feeling ghosts and grief. 

Yesterday I fixed my mother her Friday martini--something my father had done with a religiosity that belied his personal lack of religion. The last Friday before his death he wasn't able to do it, and he expressed to my mother his regret.

I made it too strong, but my mother drank it anyway, and we listened to Sumi Jo, a Korean soprano. We cried a little, and talked about music, and about the perfect photograph of my father for the memorial service.

The phone rang. It was Uncle Ralph, my father's brother. There was a time when my father and Ralph were estranged--a conflict involving another brother, Harold. Because of my father's childhood family role as Harold's caretaker (Harold had contracted polio, and couldn't use his arms), my father had fallen into a dysfunctional relationship with him, one which Harold reflexively took advantage of in numerous ways. Ralph pointed this out, perhaps not gently, and my father came to Harold's defense.

It took some years for my father to realize that Ralph was right. It took some more years for them to become close again. Of the five siblings, it was clear that the two of them were the most alike (and not just because they virtually looked like twins). They were kindred spirits, both of them with similar outlooks on the world, both accomplished scientists (Uncle Ralph the more accomplished, considered by many the father of modern neuropsychology). And so in later years they built--or perhaps rebuilt--a strong emotional attachment.

When my mother answered the phone, Ralph could barely talk through his sobbing. When he finally was able to talk, he told my mother what was, for me, a revelatory story. After a lifetime as brothers, what Ralph told my mother about was how he felt when my father was born. He was six years old, and he just loved this little baby boy--loved him so much that he ran home from school day after day in his eagerness to see him.

I could imagine this little first grader holding the baby, maybe feeling the silky head against his cheek, awash in affection. And now, after growing up together during trying times in American history (the Great Depression, World War II), after estrangement and reconnection--after more than eighty years of history together, when he heard about his little brother's death it was as if he was losing that little baby boy. As if death, somehow, has the power to erase time...or, perhaps, the power to erase our temporality.

I lay awake in the night, thinking about this. Because I knew in my own way the same thing. I'm a middle-aged man. I moved out of my childhood home well over half my life ago. But on confronting my father's death, I am that little boy hiding under the kitchen table with my sister, and my father is peeking under at us and calls us Englebert and Humperdink. And how can that little boy manage without his Papa?

Of course, I'm not that little boy. That little boy had his Papa, was lucky enough to have his Papa. And I, a husband and father, teacher and writer, will manage. I have plenty to do. But I think about the way the death of loved ones seems to unmoor us from the inevitable forward flow of time. I think about Einstein's understand of time, as a fourth dimension, one in which every moment is as real as the present, nothing lost with age. I'm reminded of Boethius's understanding of God's eternity, an ancient refection on time that parallel's Einstein's: God isn't trapped in the flow, but is present at each moment "at once." This is the perspective of eternity: to be eternal is to stand, not so much outside of time, but within every moment of it in the way that each of us inhabits the present moment.

If Einstein is right about time, then the mystery is why we experience it as we do. The standard contemporary answer--that biological organisms resist or move against the flow of entropy in the universe--is not so much an answer as a gesture: "Somehow, maybe, this fact has something to do with it." Were I to speculate, I'd say that experiencing time as we do is essential to our status as agents, as selves who act, causally, in the world. To be part of the chain of cause and effect, we need to inhabit time in the way we do, first experiencing the moment of decision, then the moment of outcomes.

Perhaps death is the threshold to eternity--not in the full sense that Boethius takes God to be eternal, but in some deep sense. At death, as our consciousness hits the outer edge of our experience in this life, we subjectively hit the place where another perspective on time becomes possible. Even when it is the death of another, the death of a loved one, we sense the strangeness of time as we experience it, we feel the tug of another perspective.

And so we're jarred loose. The years evaporate. For a moment we're children again, re-inhabiting an earlier slice of our world. We're holding a precious little baby brother, smelling him, savoring him. Or we're laughing underneath a table, looking at Papa's slippers and savoring the silly names he gives to us.


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  2. I am sorry for your loss. I found this a very moving reflection on time, death and eternity. Thank you.

  3. Beautiful post, Eric. I have been right there with you, thinking of every moment with my father in the "past" as existing equally with the one that I am currently experiencing as "now".

    The Buddhists say the reason for time is so that "everything doesn't happen all at once," which I think is a bit humorous, but may tie into your view a bit.

    But mostly your post reminded me of the moment when my mother called and told me that my step-father had passed away. I had been living with them, right after graduating college, in order to help take care of him (I was a bit lost too after college, so it gave me a place to be).

    One night we had a great visit with him at the nursing home to which he had recently been admitted. The severity of his cancer had led to this move, and he ended up living in there for about a week. Anyway, we had a great visit, but afterwards my mother and I were quite somber. I didn't sleep at all that night, and I had to take the GRE the next day, which I struggled through.

    I received her call in my car right after completing the test. She told me the news. We cried. After we hung up, I closed my eyes and saw his face in my mind's eye. The odd thing was that his smiling face was all the ages of his life together. He was young and old all at one, gently rippling almost like a flag in the wind.

    I had not considered deep ideas about time before. But I was struck by this vision.

    I have had visions of my father as well, he passed in 2005. Perhaps one day we can trade stories. The loss is a terrible thing. But I suppose it's an essential part of the mystery of life - the painfully wide spectrum of our experience.

    Thinking of you and your family, Steven