This Afterlife Is For You
One day that first fall after Aura’s death, in Brooklyn, on the corner of Smith and Union, I noticed an old lady standing on the opposite corner, waiting to cross the street, a normal-looking old lady from the neighborhood, neat gray hair, a little hunched, a sweet jowly expression on her pale face, looking as if she were enjoying the sunlight and October weather as she waited patiently for the light to change. The thought was like a silent bomb: Aura will never find out about being old, she’ll never get to look back on her own long life. That was all it took, thinking about the unfairness of that and about the lovely and accomplished old lady Aura had surely been destined to become. –From Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman
Today Ronan is trying out his TheraTog, an expensive therapeutic suit made of soft and stretchy “secret” fabric that will supposedly assist with trunk support. We’ll see. I am suspicious whenever I hear “patent pending.” As we worked with the physical therapist it was difficult to continue bringing her around to the fact that any therapeutic modalities we choose for Ronan will be about his immediate creature comfort versus activities to advance particular skills that will improve his future life. “What will help him right now?” I ask again and again. Night splints to keep his feet flat, maybe. (Although here I remember my hours in traction and wince.) But when she started talking about a metal brace to help him stand and walk, I had to remind her that he will NOT walk, and there’s no way I’m going to force my child into anything that sets off a metal detector. I remember the days of uncomfortable braces and clunky wooden legs, and I’m not willing to have the bulk of Ronan’s sensory experiences connected with any kind of contraption involving metal, pulleys, leather, canvas straps or wood when there exists no possible future benefit. The TheraTog, for now, seems innocuous enough. Maybe we’ll make him a cape for it.
The Rapture has come and gone, to much media ado, and as the so-called “obscure” Christian preacher was spouting his end-of-the-world doomsday scenarios I was digging into two books: Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name and Dante’s Inferno. It was an interesting side-by-side reading experience: the story of one man’s private grief, and an archetypal story about what it might mean to experience an afterlife without chubby cheeked angels and a crowd of your ancestors welcoming you to your celestial, cloud-puffy home to dance around the heavenly Maypole and make merry forever after. (If a person is resurrected in their body at the moment of their death, what do they look like in heaven? How would we know people? Will my grandparents look as they did in 1940, as if they’d just walked out of their Technicolor wedding photo? Or would I be able to identify them as children, as young adults? Do they get to choose? Would they wait for me, holding a signs with my name written on it, expectant, searching my face like a limo driver at an airport?)
Goldman lost his wife Aura in a swimming accident in Mexico. She was 30, and they’d been married for four years in what, by his account, was a passionate, flawed, complicated, loving and life-defining relationship for both of them. I bought the book because the jacket indicated that when Aura died Goldman also wanted to die, and instead he began to write. I’ve wanted to die so many times since January 10th, and I wanted to see how someone else was using the writing process and handling the story while living (or trying to live) through the cold mist of constant, body-boggling grief.
What I like best about the book is that Aura is not presented as a ghost haunting her husband; she is not one of Dante’s “shades” thronging around the river, desperate to cross to their demise because living without hope has made them empty of anything but desire, even if that desire is ultimately deleterious. (Translation: fatal and involving eventual damnation.) Goldman fears his memories of Aura and yet he cannot live without them, they sustain him. Aura is not a ghost, but he might as well be. Like one of Dante’s miserable shades, he needs and desires only what tortures him.
Without Aura’s physical presence there is nowhere, he admits, where he does not feel “jarringly alone.” Grief as isolation vs. Dante’s archetypal traveler who blacks out and freaks out and needs a host of epic poets to keep him grounded as he descends through the levels. There’s a lot of light and noise and movement in Dante’s classic tale; chaos reigns. The crazy-making part of Goldman’s experience is the silence, the deep, annihilating quiet. Together the books make up an idiosyncratic but believable portrait of grief over the loss of a loved one: there is the requisite gnashing and screaming and crying, the terrible, shattering noise, shadows looming in the woods, etc., and yet the griever/traveler might as well be standing alone in the middle of a sports field, kidnapped by emotion, tied to a chair, hands bound, rag in the mouth, bright lights illuminating all the intimate geography of the person’s fear and sadness: their face, their eyes. Throughout the book Goldman, “Is this really happening to us, mi amor?” The question is the biggest puzzle; a brainmash. I ask the question all the time: walking with Ronan, watching my close friends hold him and love him, rocking him at bedtime, listening to his dorky, clownish laugh that I would recognize anywhere and often hear in my dreams, coming through all the windows of a house, rising up through the floor, leaking from the roof. A house of laughter – you can’t walk on wood or tile or linoleum without hearing a giggle. Surfaces cackle and howl. Maybe in the future these dreams will be comforting or feel like visitations – right now they feel torturous and cruel. Even a toaster is dangerous. Goldman and I are sitting together in that field, chair-bound, watching sweat roll down one another’s faces. If our hands weren’t bound and useless we might throw them up in the air.
Dante’s traveler, “has not been a friend of fortune, is hindered in his path along the lonely hillside; he has been turned aside by terror.” The unfortunate Goldman will not be turned aside; quaking, he ventures forward into the great darkness of his sadness, grabbing and searching with his hands, his teeth, his nose, his mind. He evokes Aura’s absence tenderly, exquisitely, attempting to inhabit and literally re-member and re-arrange their life together as a way of speaking for the unfairness of a life cut short, for the richness of that life while it was shared with him. His portrait of his beloved is almost dangerously intimate. The impact of their romance is no small thing for Goldman: “Four years – are those too few years to hold such significance in a grown man’s life? Or can four years mean so much that they will forever outweigh all the others put together?” Yes, I thought, yes. Absolutely.
But when Goldman writes about the unfairness of Aura never knowing about being old and how terrible it is that she will never be able to look back on her life as if through a telescope that narrows all of her years to a series of singular experiences, I had to quit reading. I didn’t want to hear Goldman talk about unfairness, even though the death of his wife in a swimming accident – an accident – is a horror. Ranking my grief over his is a terrible thing to do and yet I couldn’t stop myself. I experienced my own silent bomb: Ronan will never even know that he had a life.
Or will he?
Philosophy has often been accused of being a whole lot of chatter about nothing, but these thinkers carve pathways into hidden worlds. They examine the contradictions of life in a ruthless and penetrating way that I can appreciate now more than every before. Like Dante’s gate of hell, they offer portals into (at the very least) an imaginary understanding of who we are and what happens to us (or might) on the most basic and profound level. No wonder they make people uncomfortable.
Theories of the afterlife abound. Years ago my grandmother gave my father a copy of Left Behind, the bestselling book about the Rapture, as a Christmas gift. He and I started to read it and couldn’t stop laughing; it was so badly written, so ridiculous, who would ever believe this? We wondered, grazing on Christmas cookies and drinking spiked holiday punch. What do you know? My grandmother asked. She was angry. Her pastor in rural Illinois had instructed her to read the book because it was the Truth, and because the version presented of “what happens next” was the right one and she should consider herself warned. She wasn’t having any of our scoffs or dismissive giggling. Her soul, she promised us, would be fine. She believed, she said, and that made all the difference. Of course it did.
The ancient Greeks believed that a person’s memory within the community is what constitutes the afterlife. (Hades was not very exciting, it seems, and one’s afterlife experience was necessarily supplemented by this communal memory.) If someone is remembered, they will not die. And those of us who have lost people write and remember frantically: to “save,” to give our parents or children or spouses some kind of afterlife that our naturalist or empiricist tendencies categorically deny. It’s a way of enacting that famous quote from the ancient philosopher Epicurus: “death is nothing to us.” Of course the idea that someone lives on in memory assumes that the community has remembered the person correctly. Aha! In step writers, professional and otherwise, to make the memories of loved ones sing.
I have always loved reading the obituaries in newspapers, especially in small towns where a family might “buy” a whole page as a memorial to their loved one. Maybe it’s a sign of a depressive nature, but I love these mini-memorials that survivors cook up to tell the reader about the deceased: his or her family life or volunteer duties might be emphasized. Perhaps she was a knitter and he was a Shriner. My father was a war veteran, a Christian. My mother loved cats. I find if both fascinating and sad to see what is selected and parsed from a life: 80 odd years on the planet can be reduced to a column of words the size of a pinky finger. I can’t read the obits anymore, either, without falling into the grief ranking trap. Yes, it’s terrible that someone “lost their struggle” at 85, but at least that person got to look back on a life, at least that person had a life, and knew that they had a life. I rarely see baby obits and of course I don’t want to. It’s the Sports section for now.
The traveler of the Inferno sets out on “the steep and savage path,” a descent into the essence of nothingness, a terrible journey to the core of being human, which is that we die. Obituaries are a less inflammatory version of the theories undergirding being “left behind,” only they are pure and earnest and lack the manipulative element of thunderbolt preachers who prey on our most fundamental fears in order to railroad us into a set of thoughts or actions that, by necessity, exclude a great portion of the population of this world. In other words, that version of “what’s next” can feel free to leave me and all of my favorite people far, far behind.
Is it possible that Ronan could have an afterlife that isn’t just a collection of photographs or favorite toys or essays or whatever else we do to mark his time with us? Is survival after death possible?
In traditional Cartesian mind/body dualism, which heavily influences the way many of us view ourselves, the soul must persist, and in that sense it is immortal, existing as a separate entity. I know my son’s body; I know my body. I recognize him through his physical form, although I’m not sure how or if he recognizes mine. He has no “criteria for identity” for me, just as there exists no criteria for identity for a disembodied soul. So is he already in his afterlife because he is beyond or outside of making these distinctions? Will he be able to distinguish this life from the next if there is a next one? Is there (literally) an alternative to death? A “new” afterlife? Can a soul exist on its own, disembodied and without being outfitted with a “resurrection body?” From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
This challenge has been met in an interesting article by H. H. Price (Price 1953). Price spells out, in considerable detail, a notion of disembodied souls existing in a “world” of something like dream-images — images, however, that would be shared between a number of more or less like-minded, and telepathically interacting, souls. Included among these images would be images of one’s own body and of other people’s bodies, so that one might, at first, find it difficult to distinguish the image-world from the ordinary physical world we presently inhabit. The conception is similar to Berkeley’s, except that Price does not invoke God directly as the sustainer of regularities in the image-world. He does say, however, that “if we are theists, we shall hold that the laws of nature, in other worlds as in this one, are in the end dependent on the will of a Divine Creator” (p. 390). I think anyone who reads, and seriously considers, Price’s development of this idea will be forced to admit that he has given a reasonably clear account of what disembodied existence might be like. We need not follow Price in (what appears to be) his supposition that this is a plausible account of the actual state of persons who have died. It is enough if he has provided an account that makes plain the intelligibility of the notion of disembodied survival; the believer in an afterlife can then say, “If not in just this way, then in some other way.”
Oh, I like this very much, because it holds out the possibility that I will encounter Ronan again someday. I might not recognize him at first, but Price implies that it’s possible, maybe, that there exists a realm, an unseen world, where I would be able to see him, touch him and experience him in different forms. But if I met Ronan in some funk-dog version of the afterlife as Price describes above, how would I recognize him? What was a comforting thought is now more complicated. If there is an alternative universe where he lives on, how can I pull back the curtain between this world and that one and see what he’s doing? How can I go there? How will he know me? But now I’m one of Dante’s haunted huddle, waiting at the river, cold and flattened and full of nothing but desire for answers I’m not sure I want.
Whose grief is worse? Mine or Goldman’s? Who decides or sets the criteria? For bodies, for feelings, for lives? Is grief all the same hell, or are their rings and categories? I don’t want to be the one to set standards. What I do know is that every grieving person is in limbo, one of the freakiest parts of Dante’s conception of hell, a place where “we have no hope and yet we live in longing.” I underlined that sentence in preparation for an exam as a college freshman. I’m sure I managed to eke out some impassioned essay about it in a blue book. But I never understood it until today.
I’ll pick up Goldman’s book at a later time, and I’m never going to make it through Left Behind without dissolving into a fit of giggles, but I have thought: what does Ronan’s life mean for him if he isn’t aware of it? Although knowing and pondering the existence of life has probably not done me any great favors, in Ronan’s case it frightens me. Who will remember him? How can he be protected from oblivion? I guess I’m Greek in that way; I want his legacy to be a shared one, a communal story among friends and family and even strangers. I can’t save him, but I can remember him. I am a writer turned memorialist. But maybe that’s what all writers are, truly, at their core. Maybe that’s all we get.
Today I heard a woman sing a slower, sweeter version of Elton John’s “Your Song.”
And you can tell everybody that this is your song.
It may be quite simple, but now that it’s done –
I hope you don’t mind
I hope you don’t mind
That I put down in words.
How wonderful life is now you’re in the world.
So, Ronan, I hope you don’t mind that I write these words, now, in this world, while you’re here now, and that I’ll keep writing them when you go to whatever world or reality you’re headed to next if there is a next. Who knows what we are destined to become? But if there is a world beyond this one where we can be together, bodiless or headless or faceless, know this: I will recognize you. You won’t need a sign or a halo or an introduction from a deity or a saint; you won’t even need to laugh. And all of these words words words that I throw down? If any afterlife is possible, if it exists, I hope they will help you recognize me.