Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The locus of grief

Adhesions of the mind
We talked throughout the trip, and I remember to this day what I said at various turns in the road or near certain rocks. (I mention this because it illustrates what may be multiple storings in the memory in the brain, just as one often remembers the place on the page where certain passages have been read, whether it is on the left- or right-hand page, up or down, and so on.)

Stanislaw Ulam, Adventures of a Mathematician
The memoirs of Stan Ulam contain his geographically triggered recollections of one of his mathematical innovations. Places do not appear to remind me of things as strongly as they did Ulam. Except perhaps for trips to the family farm, where a walk about the grounds naturally tends to prompt recollections of childhood episodes, geography seldom works that way.

Last year I lost a cherished colleague. During the many months while she struggled to live and was absent from our math department, her office was occupied by temporary replacements. It gave me a pang every time I saw the young woman who had taken her place during spring semester because there was a slight resemblance. When I'd see the adjunct professor sitting in the office with her back to the door, there'd be the momentary disorientation of a false recognition, quickly quelled by the recollection of reality.

When my ailing friend died last fall, I found myself avoiding the corridor where her office was. I'd travel a circuitous path to my own space, going the long way around the building. I'd also use the back door because it was used mostly by professors from other departments. I managed to see very few of my math colleagues during the first week of bereavement.

I've been back on my usual path for a number of months now. It has occurred to me that my colleague's old office no longer triggers any feelings in me. The new occupant, one of other tenured math professors, differs from our late colleagues in sex, complexion, and original nationality. He doesn't remind me of our missing colleague at all. Her old space is not her shrine.

For me, rather, her shrine is a small relic from her office. I have the door card that used to identify the office as hers. It's tucked into a corner of a cork board in my office, partially obscured by pinned memos, schedule notes, and random reminders. I suppose the door card is one of the reminders. Every day I see it. Every day I think of her.

A dirge remembered

The Fourth Symphony of Sibelius can bring hot tears to my eyes. Sometimes it takes me by surprise, the music creeping into my consciousness from a radio in the background, till suddenly one of the major themes strikes my ears and the grief wells up again.

The Fourth Symphony strikes many as lugubrious, but the degree of sadness is in the ear of the listener. For me, the Sibelius Fourth is a reminder of tragedy. The death of a friend at an early age. An unresolved and unresolvable death.

Paul was in his mid-twenties when he slipped into a coma and never woke up. He had gone out for drinks, which he almost never did, and that evening he took a dose of his prescription sleeping pills. It was a fatal combination. He wasn't supposed to drink alcohol when using his insomnia medication. Did he do it deliberately? Did he take more pills than usual? We'll never know. He left no note and the coroner could not decide whether he had willfully overdosed. It was a near thing, but nearer to death than to life.

Paul apparently took a few days to die, but he was alone that summer and no one missed him at first. No one went looking for him during those first hours when it might have been possible to save him.

Every few weeks I walk past the apartment complex where Paul died and it hardly ever reminds me of him. I usually hung out with him at school and seldom visited him in his residence. It's not imprinted in my mind the way the music is.

I was spending the summer with my parents when the phone call came about Paul's death. Distraught, I went for a long walk in the open country that surrounds the farm. Upon my return, I went down to the basement and put Karajan's recording of the Sibelius Fourth on the stereo and sat quietly through the forty minutes of the composition. On that day, the Sibelius Fourth Symphony belonged to Paul.

Nearly thirty years later, it still does.

The persistence of loss

It was four years ago this week that a friend called me, his voice choked with anguish. His wife had collapsed. Emergency medical personnel were trying to revive her, but she was not responding. I rushed over to their home. The ambulance had already left, but the house was still swarming with the law enforcement personnel who had been summoned in response to the 9-1-1 call. I walked past the flashing lights and identified myself to the police as a friend of the family. They admitted me to the house, where I helped get my friend's three-year-old boy ready to leave with his aunt, my friend's sister.

The little boy said, “My mommy is sick. She needs to get better so she can take care of me.” My heart broke (and the crack is still there today). His birth mother had refused to visit him even once in the year and a half since his father had won custody, and now his much-loved stepmother was dying. His world was going through another massive upheaval on the eve of his fourth birthday.

My friend's wife died the next day after thirty hours of futile efforts in the intensive care unit of a local hospital. I stood vigil with him during most of those hours, watching as hope dwindled away to nothing. Nothing I had ever experienced before was as starkly tragic, so lacking in any mitigation. It was soul crushing.

Even today it is impossible to see that little boy without feeling a pang in my heart for all he has endured. He seems astonishingly well adjusted, deeply devoted to his father and the new stepmother he has had for three years. I marvel at it. Where does this resilience come from? I don't know, but I'm grateful that he has it. Whereas I am a middle-aged man whose parents are still experiencing good health and celebrating over fifty years of marriage, my eight-year-old “nephew” has lived through his birth parents' divorce, his biological mother's abandonment, the death of his first stepmother, and the adjustment to yet a third mother. Just thinking about the instability of his life makes my mind reel. He, however, is sweet and happy and engaging. I'd be huddled in a corner, rocking back and forth.

The boy has been away for most of this summer, visiting with his paternal grandparents as his father and stepmother work on building their business. Although I miss seeing him when I visit his parents, his vacation is in a way my vacation, too. I'm still working on coping with the feelings of grief that rise up whenever he appears. What a peculiar thing that is—that a happy child should be a reminder of woe. Let him instead be a reminder of strength and endurance.