There’s a Lullaby for Suffering

My sister-in-law’s father died yesterday. And while I was not inclined even to bother her or her family on a tough day for them– much less insensitive enough to clumsily ask for the exact cause of death– my assumption is that complications from dementia were at fault.

In this, I assume, there is at least some consolation. In episodes I had witnessed his decline, and it must have been far more torturous to do so on a daily basis. Being an intellectual, one of my greatest fears is to be stricken by some form of the disease, thereafter to wither away like Willem de Kooning, increasingly separated from the most essential characteristic of my being until all I had ever created was lost, and this to happen well before a corporeal oblivion that may well seem a relief. But it would surely be even worse for those who understood this about me– who would know in some sense that I would die before I actually died. In the end, it would not be so much a tragedy as a release from one, the best of me having long since been methodically stripped away and discarded. So too must it have been yesterday. The true moment of a person’s death is not always the second when they stop breathing, after all.

In this, I do not mean to minimize the grief felt by my sister-in-law’s family. I had been preparing for my mother’s death for over a year, and at some point during each visit to see her I had endured the pain of counseling her on the death of some aspect of her life– how her world gradually shrank to a quarter of her house and then to a single room, how she could no longer maintain her own personal hygiene, and perhaps worst of all, how she could no longer read without becoming nauseous (she was never able to read my book, for one). And the last week of her life was mostly a morphine-driven haze of half-being, so that I can not even be certain that she heard or understood anything of what I said to her. And still I mourned at and after her funeral. We are all selfish at our cores, I suppose. Knowing that the day after her death was better than the day before was not enough to stave off my grief. It was just a new day for it.

Today, though, this most recent death aroused in me a recollection of an important moment during my travels.

While driving upon the Blue Ridge Parkway in southwestern Virginia in 2011 I came across a disabled car, and as I often did while I was on the road, I stopped to help. Quickly, though, the fragmented and often incoherent statements made by the man who operated it made it obvious that he was not in command of all his faculties. As he was an older man, I suspected dementia. And when I saw him wandering out into the middle of the road after I returned to my car to call for help, I knew this must be the case.

It was a sad revelation. I imagined that he loved many of the same things I did: travel, conversation, the simple joys of an open road as beautiful as the one we then shared. But for him, the time when he could enjoy them had passed. Stubbornly, I am sure, he kept trying to enjoy them, even as the recklessness of doing so became more and more apparent. I am certain I would act in the same way.

But so too did the encounter clarify the personal nature of my project. I had imagined myself as something of an Emersonian raconteur– a servant to other Americans, there to tell their stories when no one else would yet myself an empty vessel. But at that moment I acknowledged in myself the desire to fulfill my own dreams as I explored my country. And thereafter my own story gradually seemed to hold the same significance as the ones I told. Eventually my book would weave the two together, a cooperative narrative playing out upon the pages of my beloved homeland. It is, I think, all the better for it.

I suspect the value of a person’s life reveals itself in a similar way. Whether in the best of days or the worst, the mere being of a person has significance and purpose, its basic energies a repercussive cacophony of inter-personal meaning. The best of days had passed for the man I met on the side of the Parkway, and still his presence reshaped a part of my life. And the best had long passed for Robert well before Sunday, as well. But still he resonates.

Long may he do so. For neither dementia nor death can quell the ever-rippling tides of efficacious humanity.

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