Nocturnes

I guess we’ve arrived at that stage of life when it’s rare for more than a couple of months to go by without someone we know dying.  I mean, when you’re, like, eight years old, you just don’t know that many people, and the people you do know are other kids, other kids’ parents, and relatives.  Even your grandparents might not be all that old–when I was eight, my grandmother was sixty-one, and there were some retired folks living on our street, none of whom died when we were living there.  In my fortunate childhood, death was a very rare event. 

But when you’re forty-two, you know all sorts of people–high school friends, college friends, people you used to work with, people your spouse or partner works with, neighbors and former neighbors, miscellaneous cousins, friends of your sibling, friends of your parents, parents of your friends, people in your own profession whom you see from time to time at conferences, people in other professions whom you see from time to time when the toilet backs up or it’s time to have your taxes done.  There are the few people you’d put on your own personal ark in case of flood–the few people without whom you’re not sure life would be worth living–but there get to be an awful lot of people you’re fond of, too, people who would be someone else’s Ark People but you would want to know that they were safe on someone else’s ark. 

And, as my grandmother used to say, nobody gets out of here alive.  (She had a mordant sense of humor.)  What she couldn’t explain to me is that after a certain point, if you go on living, there are people not making it out alive–that is, people dying–all the time.  That is, this fact becomes impossible to ignore, because you know too many of them, or you know the people who would have dragged them on board their own arks.

I don’t know, maybe it’s just been a particularly bad couple of years, but I don’t think so.  I think Stubb and I have gotten to the age where our friends’ parents’ deaths are not unexpected, when the people who don’t hold the longevity cards are starting to get picked off, or when the parents who were “older” when we were in high school have become genuinely old.  And among those our own age, or a little older, or a little younger, illnesses; accidents; suicides. 

The mother of an SA student died this week, after a long illness.  So did a friend’s father, who was also a teacher of mine in high school.  Today, reading, in the current New Yorker, Richard Howard’s translation of Roland Barthes’ notes on mourning his mother (whom he outlived by less than three years) undid me completely.  But they are beautiful and I will send the piece to my friend.  (The book comes out next month.)

It isn’t, at this point, so much the sense of the looming shadow that will claim us all.  When the death is at a bit of a remove, when you’re not yourself doing the mourning , you pity the mourners, remembering with dread how grief takes over the world.  It comes back, too; at someone else’s sadness, your own well refills.  Barthes writes, “Don’t say ‘mourning.’  It’s too psychoanalytic.  I’m not mourning. I’m suffering.”

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3 responses to this post.

  1. My mother turned 67 last week, and this weekend I was thinking about my aunt and uncle and what it must have felt like for my mother to be the only one of her siblings to reach 50 years old. And then I realized that this meant they were both in their 40s when they died, and of course I’m in my 40s, and suddenly life seemed quite fragile.

    Reply

  2. Posted by meansomething on September 12, 2010 at 8:00 pm

    WN?, I know what you mean. My mother is 68, by the way, and planning to retire in a couple of months. We’re about the same age–which, I realized last night but didn’t include in the post, means that we were a little bit too young to have lost many friends to the AIDS epidemic. I think that many people just a bit older must have come to this feeling of fragility much more suddenly and terribly.

    Reply

  3. […] can no longer regard sad or tragic events with the same fresh shock that I did then.  As I observed a couple of years ago, we become more accustomed to deaths in general, however shocking or awful […]

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