Thursday, March 19, 2009

Intimations of Mortality

I love and am very close to my maternal grandmother. She's 80, now, and it's hard not to contemplate sometimes that there isn't much time left in her lifespan. I can't imagine her being gone, but it is inevitable. In the silent moments of the night, this prospect makes me think of death and loss and memory.

We are collections of memories. When we go, we take them with us. I think that's partly why I'm so obsessive about books, as well as other media: they're retrievable, reproducible memory. But true memory, that mysterious dance of electrical impulses and neurotransmitters, isn't either of those things. It is ephemeral and transitory, even when we are alive, and irretrievable once we're dead.

I heard somewhere recently that there's a Jewish saying to the effect of "when one person dies, a world dies." Similarly, the Egyptians didn't preserve their bodies and paint their tombs and erect pyramids out of morbidity, but out of a belief that you don't truly die until you are no longer remembered, your name lost to the ages. Yet are even the famous and the infamous, a Lincoln or a Napoleon or an Elizabeth I, with books and movies and monuments dedicated to them, not lost to us? Their essence is long since past, and all we have are conjectures and reconstructions, even from the most well-documented lives. They aren't "real," just ghosts we've conjured out of gossip and conventional wisdom. And most people won't leave even that much. The great unwashed, anonymous masses that has and always will comprise most of humanity, at best leave a name on carved in stone or buried in mounds of paper. Even pictures or photographs are just faces, frozen images of strangers. Their lives, their character, their personalities, all long dust and forgotten, even by their descendants. They lived and loved and raged and laughed and suffered and married and no one knows or cares.

That, I think is what scare me, and perhaps others, most about death. It is annihilation, the conquest of existence by nonexistence. We didn't exist before we were born, of course, but somehow that's not something we even really think about, and not something that fills us with dread. The thought of the existent becoming nonexistent, of THIS existence becoming nonexistent, however, is terrifying. When I'm gone, I will have been but a whisper of a whisper, a brief conglomeration of particles that used borrowed energy from a fiery ball of plasma to briefly overcome entropy and just as quickly succumbed to it. The atoms that comprise my body, which will go on to spread and join with other atoms in new configurations, but nothing that is really me will be left. I'll never have children, so even my astonishing-when-you-think-about-it, billions-year-long legacy of flukes, fitness, and determination that created the unbroken lineage from which I spring will end. My DNA will not propagate.

I love my grandmother. She's a great person. When my grandmother dies, her whole world will be gone, all of her memories and experiences and dreams, all that is really her, will vanish. I can remember her stories and look at old photos, but they'll never really be mine, never really be more than pale, half-impressed hearsays. She'll be in MY heart and memory, but that's just another ghost. Like an echo slowly dropping off as the sound waves the comprise it lose energy and dissipate, down the centuries even this will be lost, until there is nothing left of her, and, eventually, me. Death is silence.


littlehorn said...

Hi. I found your blog through Otto's. Excellent post.

I think about death too, and it scares me as well. Not for the same reason though. I just find the whole idea of not existing to be...well, impossible to handle. The French call it the néant. Most people say that there is certainly something after death, and I wish I was that confident.

Frank said...

I wish I were confident of a life after death, too. It would be much easier. But then I don't think, deep down, a lot of people ARE confident of life after death.

Tim said...

hmm a lot to think about. Have you lost anyone close to you before?

Frank said...

Not really, Tim, which may play into this. I've lost my grandfathers, but I barely knew the one, and the other was the kind of man you couldn't get "close" to, though I loved him, of course.

Tim said...

hmm yeah that would explain a lot. I've had a fair number of people in my life die and it seems like the most natural of things...this temporary nature. I don't want to live forever and that single rational thought prevents me from feeling sorrow over death, only the sadness of missing out of memories and experiences that they had and did not pass on. cherish what you have, all things fade in time. Maybe there is more, maybe there is not, so don't waste the little time that you have with regret.