To a departed friend
This is what baffles me: what was inconceivable before you were gone, as for anyone else, seems irrefutable, after.
Something like: “It’s all said and done.”
Thinking it impossible before.
So undeniable, after.
The dual reality of before-and-after has no sadness involved. It’s stark and it’s blunt.
Sadness, grief and pain, we feel when the deceased is someone close or they leave us abruptly, like add-ons to a plain fact, whose very plainness comes as a jolt when you try to understand its weave:
“He was. He is no longer.”
Even when the sadness is mellowed, because the departed was elderly or sick and their leaving us was expected not only in theory but as required by the circumstances, the bluntness of the cut is chilling: “He was. He is no longer.”
We can say it again. It’s like tectonic plates gliding in opposite directions one over the other, and parting suddenly.
The ground beneath our feet, we believed to be solid. Yet without our knowing it was moving all along until it gave way. Now, it’s irrefutable.
That is what my pain prevented me from seeing when G. died: I too had been torn by the parting of the plates.
Our reality is interconnected with the realities of others, of the people we love.
They bring parts of us with them when they go
And we keep them with us through memory.
For one, the memory of the word “PESSE,” which I learned from you, spied for the first time in your handwriting, that I had never before seen nor heard, despite having grown up surrounded on all horizons by fir trees as far as the eye could see, wondering whether there could really be anything else.
The same pesses that, across the border, you grew up in too.
On the morning of G.’s burial over twenty years ago, you slipped a message into my mailbox that moved me deeply. A message I wasn’t expecting. You dropped it off yourself. Two worthy reasons to be moved. Then the third, a sentence I quote from memory: “We are both made of the wood of the dark and sturdy pesses…”.
And you brought me courage I didn’t think I had.
The memory moves me today how it did back then.
Common name for fir tree.
The pices, also called pesse, or pece, picea, serente, spruce.
Lat. Picea, from pix, poix.
“I found the whole idea a bit strange,” I said to you. You, like the dean you were, were dismayed that a teacher more experienced than me had taken it upon himself to initiate a procedure that should have been my prerogative, as head of the class.
You amended it with such elegance:
“A cavalier process, indeed.”
The precision, the elegance, it was you.
The cunning look in your eye, showing your undivided attention.
The way you never said too much.
Typical of the land of the pesses.
A sharp eye behind thick glass
A bushy brow of one not easily misled
A slight protrusion of the lower lip
A gravelly voice with a somewhat deliberate slowness, foggy before the sound came out.
I can see your gaze and hear your voice.
“The best defence is an attack/offence,” you told be leading up to a parents’ evening we expected to be heated.
Your slim silhouette, impeccable posture.
A gait that left your entire body so still and mysteriously controlled.
Study tours with the students. The complicity you had with them. Playing cat and mouse to catch them in the act when they would try to sneak out at night.
Arles under the bright sun.
Your home renovations I still do not understand. Fragmenting a huge room into small ones, which should I guess speak of you.
Your story has closed on you.
It is plain for us to see. We are the witnesses. We are the witnesses of this fact, that remains beyond your grasp.
It makes me feel appalled, despite my realization that the feeling is rooted in what we have made of death.
We have known since Philippe Ariès that the attitudes of the living toward death are but few, though they vary from era to era.
Ancient Romans considered the dead impure and relegated them to cemeteries outside of the city. Later, surely with the influence of Christianity, the world of the living began mingling with that of the dead and cemeteries entered into the towns. From the late 19th century in our part of the world, a new wedge came between the realms. Scientific rationalism and technical progress made death a shameful outsider once again, not because it is impure, but because it resembles failure.
Could this, in part, be why I feel appalled by the thought that we here today, without you, are able to talk as if behind your back of your existence come to a halt, an existence that closed on you, that cloaks you in our memories?
How uncomfortable it is to talk about someone in their absence;
How discourteous to refer to someone present in the 3rd person, dismissing them by the choice of pronoun;
This impression I have of dismissing you by speaking of your death and fulfilled life in your absence, maybe it’s there because I too, in spite of myself, have steeped in the representation of death not only as a failure but also, as of recently, as the enemy of life, an enemy against which a president across the border “declared war” without so much as a flinch, and without sparking any real objection.
To Kant, time was a necessary representation that formed the basis of our intuitions. Through time alone was the reality of phenomena attainable for us. And since our intuition is always alert, never in our experience are objects given to us that are not subjected to the condition of time.
Appallment here again. We’re not wired to understand things that escape time. You, for example.
It’s not the virus that got you, though ironically, despite the machine that had been keeping you alive for many months, you ran out of breath.
Dying of your own illness from a lack of air, amidst so many others dying by lack of air due to this epidemic.
Will we be able to come together to bid you farewell?
Rituals link life and death. Rituals already withering in our modern world, and suddenly banned, held in solitary confinement, because our lives depend on it…
That link is essential.
Deaths are published in figures these days. We count those “gone too soon,” tally the deaths that “could have been avoided” into charts and comparative columns.
“Supposed avoidance of death, the proclamation of it being preventable, reinforces the denial and gives it new strength.”
Catherine Hass, anthropologist
Yours could not be avoided. Now or later. Like mine to come, though something inside me refuses to believe it. Is it because that moment when all will be “said and done” for me, and the living will talk, will be forever beyond my grasp?
Will we be denied our respects, denied the moment when death is enshrined into our lives? Will we be reduced, to still a greater degree, to the type of modest and somewhat constrict “personal bereavement” some end up doing in a therapist’s office, as though it were a psychological disorder?
No, my friend. Your departure, your passing, your death, is not a taboo. It’s the coda back to the moment in time when, in a sense, our lives converged, when I was given the invaluable chance to know you. Now once again, you’ve gotten a step ahead.
Farewell my friend.