This Sweet Old World
The luxury and necessity of mourning.
Posted Oct 22, 2018
See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world – Lucinda Williams
A recent run of losses made me think back to an afternoon at the Stanford cafeteria. I was a graduate student and, like many, would walk across campus to the cafe for coffee, but also for the opportunity to hear some discovery or insight from fellow students hailing from diverse fields. When this happened, the brief cappuccino would stretch into an hour or more as another doctoral student gleefully expounded on his or her dissertation topic. That day, however, was different.
I was sitting, sipping coffee, and going through notes from the morning’s lecture on the electrodynamics of antennae. The streaming California sun enveloped the scatter of peopled tables in a gauzy gold. I heard someone say my name, and, looking up, I recognized the man who had lectured to our electrical engineering class the week before. He asked if he could join me and I delightedly answered yes.
He was regarded as one of the brightest stars in the department, and this said a lot because the entire constellation of professors, researchers, and students at the engineering school were stellar.
We sat chatting for a while about the lecture and his research, although the equations and nuances of the latter were well beyond my ken. Then, he paused and said, ”You look very sad.” I was taken aback at his perspicacious observation. I stammered, “Well, yes I am. Our beloved dog passed suddenly.” He smiled and put his hand on mine, saying, “I am very sorry. Tell me something about her.” Tears welled in my eyes. I was, nonetheless, happy to speak about dear Smokie.
Soon we were both laughing over a couple of her escapades, such as the time she jumped on top of the kitchen counter and, unbeknownst to my parents and their dinner guests, consumed an entire lasagna. She made not a sound and the pan was left in place, intact, save the missing pasta. But, my sadness returned. Feeling self-conscious, I apologized for taking up his time and thanked him for his kindness.
“Not at all. It is important that you speak about your loved one,” he replied. “Really, in fact, I am envious of you.” “Envious? Why?” I asked, puzzled. “Because,” he explained, “you have the luxury of mourning. Where I come from, one death is so quickly followed by another, and another; there is no time to mourn. We live in an arrested state of grief. Grief lives in our blood and in our bones. When you can mourn, spend time in that space between the past and present, life and death become less distinct from each other. Life becomes death and death becomes life—two sides of the same equation.”
Seeing my stricken expression, the man smiled and, giving a small laugh, put his hand on mine again. “That is enough dark thoughts! You must be happy to be with your dog and family and the beautiful memories. Enjoy them, cherish your sadness. Mourning is a necessity. You must mourn to live. Now, back to Mr. Maxwell and his equations. They are much simpler than those of life!” He stood up, turned, and waved good-bye.
These days, perhaps, I better understand what the man from Beirut meant. Caring for rescued animals in sanctuary may be very different from the gun-ridden streets of the Middle East, but there is a constant encounter with death and not enough time to witness and absorb the perplexing, painful transformation of life to death. I, too, feel grief-soaked. I have yet to regard both sides of the life-death equation with equanimity. When there are so many who pass so quickly, as the man described, the dead begin to crowd mind and body, unintentionally pressing out the living.
I think about the animals’ experience. To one, the knowledge of their impending passing is in their eyes. Often there is pain, but always, they strive to stay engaged in life—and always I believe I see a sadness at realizing what they will lose when they leave this sweet old world. For those living free, the deer, raccoons, pumas, skunks, and other wildlife, mourning is a luxury. Lingering too long in faraway thoughts and longing invite fatal distraction. But, they do mourn—be it elephants gracefully running their trunks down and around the bones of the departed, mother deer who sniff and touch the body of their child slain by guns or cars, or rattlesnakes wrapping their bodies around the lengthy corpse of their mates—yet these gestures cannot last too long. Hunger, survival, and the needs of kin press. So perhaps, they have mastered the equation. Maybe that is a secret we can learn. . .
As for the engineer, his few words were a time-release gift that enriches and buoys my heart. I thank him and hope that he finally found the time and space to mourn his loved ones and breathe this understanding into life.