Closure, Of A Sort

Posted on October 24th, 2021 in Personal | No Comments »

Recently I found myself alone with a deceased person, in their house. The occasion was the loss of a close family member, someone I had grown up with. They passed away suddenly and, for reasons I won’t go into here, I ended up spending nearly 24 hours at their home with their cremated remains. It was somewhat surreal. First, I arrived at their house in the dead of night after a long transatlantic flight and had to almost break into their house when I found I only had one of the two keys needed for the front door. As luck would have it, the side door into the garage was unlocked and then the door into the house only had a single lock – the key I had.

So I spent the night alone and would remain so until nearly midnight of the following day – almost a full 24 hours with only memories and ashes for company.

I should explain that once upon a time, I also lived in that house, along with other family members, all of whom have now passed away. I was the sole survivor, even though I was not the youngest (the recently departed was). Every room, every drawer held a memory of a much happier time, when we were all together and looking towards the future. Now I stood in the middle of a building with no more tomorrows for anyone other than myself.

It was a difficult thing, and felt like I was invading their privacy by going through closets and opening bedroom drawers. I found many things that surprised me, and would have to remind myself that the owners were all dead and gone; I had every right, and indeed a need to go through their most intimate keepsakes. Other family members had been there before me and started to sort through paperwork, etc., so the house was disheveled. But a great many personal items were untouched and had been for some time – a watch on a nightstand, a razor still in place, a toothbrush, worn from use. Despite the untidiness, it felt like the former occupants could come back at any time and resume their lives, even though I knew that was never going to happen.

The experience left me sad, and tears were frequent. I miss them all terribly and always will. But it was also a transformative experience. I began to see this house as a place where time had stopped at the moment of the last death. In many ways, the person whose passing had brought me back to this place had refused to accept the loss of the rest of the family and tried to preserve the place as a shrine or a museum to their memory. Deep in my heart I felt the same way and understood the feeling. I too wished to keep it all as it was, as I remembered it from when I lived there. But the more I looked into drawers and cabinets, the more I examined the piles of receipts and small objects d’art, the more I came to realize I could not do that. I had no desire to be the custodian of dusty relics of days past. I was alive and had my own path to follow.

Many of the objects I found scattered on endtables and countertops were things like nail clippers or bottles of pills; remote controls or key fobs, etc. Items that all of us have in our own homes. And these are the things we use as we live our lives. But when we are gone, these items serve no further purpose, other than as remnants of our need to keep moving forward in time. Now they had no use, and no function other than as clutter. The entire house and all of its contents were static, unchanging and waiting for a future that had ceased to be.

I knew then that I could not keep things as they were. It was time to let it go, all of it. I would take some items as mementos, such as photo albums or small keepsakes, but the rest would have to be sold, donated or thrown away. It pains me to think that someone’s memories or personal treasures could wind up in the trash, but it will happen to almost everything all of us own someday. I can’t burden my descendants with the care of things that belonged to people they’ll never know. And that includes the house itself. For decades, it was a home, a happy place, a refuge for us from the trials of life. Somewhere to return to, someplace to entertain visitors or escape from the world. Now it was just a house, a structure falling into disrepair. It needs to go to a new family who will turn it into a home once again. My heart will always be there, but with the passing of the last inhabitant, it’s time to let it go, as it once came to us.

And then there were the cremains. I admit that my morbid curiosity got the better of me. If I didn’t look, I’d wonder for the rest of my life about it. The ashes were placed with no ceremony upon the TV stand, in a rather well-made cloth bag from the funeral home. I took it into the kitchen and placed it on the counter. Inside was a cardboard box with an identifying card naming the deceased. Taking the box out and opening it, I found a clear plastic bag closed with a golden tag. The remains were clearly visible through the thick plastic. Lifting it out, I was surprised at the heft. I had never seen cremated human bones in person before and marveled at the view. The ashes themselves were a light colour, slightly tan with a light pink appearance. No sign of burning or singeing anywhere, with sizes from grains of sand up to small rough-edged granules. It was hard to believe this was a person I had known nearly all my life and had spoken to only a few months previously. Now there they were, dead; burnt, crushed and ground into a near-powder, bagged and tagged, ready to be placed in the urn (which was in a box on the dining room table). I poked the bag and wondered what part of the body this or that large particle of bone once was.

Eventually I put the bag back into the box, the box back into the cloth bag and returned it to the TV stand as I had found it. I would take it out again later and look once more, as well as take a few photographs. But often as I would wander around the house, I would also lovingly pat the bag and speak to it. Several days later I would be back, possibly for the last time, and leave flowers next to the bag, in the deceased’s favourite colour (the same colour as the urn). I also visited the cemetery where the ashes would ultimately be interred, with the other former occupants of the house.

I don’t regret looking; it can’t be any more odd than seeing the body of a loved one at a viewing while they lie in repose in a casket. I mourned and will feel the pain of loss for some time to come. As everyone who has lost someone will know, the pain never really goes away; you just keep going on with it as a part of you. It’s all that can be done. You cannot live in the past. As I mentioned previously, you would become the curator of a museum of memories. The family I grew up with is gone; I have a new family now and share my life with them.

Relating my experiences to the people around me, the word “closure” came up over and over again. I don’t know if I really have a sense of it. A life interrupted feels unfinished; it’s hard to button that up and put it away in the mind. Although I can say I did make my peace with some aspects of it, such as coming to terms with giving up the house, and the cold reality of seeing a loved one as really and truly dead. I definitely turned a page (if not a chapter) in my life. But is that “closure”? It’s uncertain; perhaps in the long run it will turn out to be just that. But for now, I know I am still grieving over the loss of not only a close relative, but a huge part of my own life, also gone forever.

Since my return, I’ve thought a lot about that day, that entire trip. I can recall the smell of the house, the silence, the feeling of emptiness in rooms full of ‘things’. And the memories, everywhere. It was the busiest empty space I’ve ever known. I have deep existential dread about my own demise and leaving so much behind. It makes me look at my own collection of nail files or scribbled notes and wonder about the day when someone will have to decide what to keep and what to throw away. I wonder if they will also find closure, of a sort. I hope so. I hope I do, too.

The End and Beginning of Time

Posted on November 13th, 2018 in Metaphysics | No Comments »

The first 13.7 billion years went by in literally a flash. The Big Bang, the formation of the Sun and Earth, the stirrings of life, dinosaurs, cavemen, the pyramids, the Crusades, WWII; it all happened instantaneously. The first things I remember experiencing were short moments, with no real recollection of any gaps in between. Memories strung like pearls on threads without interconnecting. It all seems like centuries ago now. It wasn’t until I was about five years old that things began to link up in a way they had not previously. I became aware without being aware that time was moving very slowly.

Minutes and seconds would pass then as they do now, but hours, days, weeks, months, years – they all took the longest time to move through their now familiar rhythms. As a boy I would play for ages. Go to school for ages. The days were nearly eternal, Summer months like eons. Christmas would come and the house would be transformed into a gaudy delight of brightness and colour; the tree would go up, presents would appear and it would go on and on and on until I couldn’t stand it any more. When it was finally done, it would be forever before it would happen again. After periods of time so long I couldn’t name them, it would be Summer again, and the days would drift lazily by once more.

As I learned more and more about events that took place before my own birth, it would seem to me that time raced forward in a gigantic rush, like a runaway train, barrelling down through millennia until it reached me. My existence was somehow enough of an event that time itself would crash headfirst into it and like the most unimaginable collision, suddenly stop dead in its tracks. It was only in the aftermath of this incomprehensible meeting of the most unstoppable force and the most immovable object that the great train of time began to slowly shuffle forth one more. Tamed and humbled, the once raging river of eternity was reduced to a mere trickle.

But what I failed to appreciate was that time had momentum on its side.

Over the years of my life, I became aware that my power to contain time itself would weaken. Eventually I noticed that the days were now not quite so long as in my youth; Suddenly it would be Monday or Saturday again. Was it really a week ago? Not just a few days? What happened to my long, glorious Summers? A few weeks and now the cold of Winter is biting already? It is Christmas again? I look back in alarm at the years that have literally slipped away from my grasp. Where did that decade go? What have I done? Where am I now? I recall events that seem to have happened only a few years ago, and find it stupefying that it’s been twenty years or more. What? My own childhood now seems to have almost passed into myth. But I was there, dammit!

People I knew and loved are now dead and gone. I know it will only get worse. The laughter of once close companions is replaced by quiet. The days are a blur now. I get up, and suddenly it’s dark again and time for bed. Time is exacting its cruel revenge upon me for holding it at bay for so long. The scales are continuing to tip in its favour. Eventually I will lose completely. My death will be the last remaining check on its inexorable progress and once I am gone, it will resume its breakneck pace. Much like the moment before I was born, the moment after my passing will cause not just billions, but trillions of years to fly by in the briefest of intervals. An eternity may pass in the merest fraction of a second. The death of the Sun and Earth, the collision of the Milky Way and Andromeda, even the heat death of the entire Universe and the decay of the proton will arrive almost simultaneously with the end of my life. Time will be freed from the shackles placed upon it by me and will run riot until the passage of it in itself becomes a meaningless concept.

The greatest frustration is that just as before, I will not be aware of it all. I wish that after this cosmic blink of the eyelid, I would somehow have knowledge of what had gone before, but I don’t have any real hope I will. It will have to be enough to know now that when my grip on time is finally loosened, all that is to come will flow by just as fast as what had flown before. And for a small interval between two great voids, I alone had the power to tame that mighty torrent, if only for a while.

Christmas Is Killing Me

Posted on December 21st, 2011 in Personal | No Comments »

Every year I consider writing about Christmas, but put it off until it’s too late. This year I seem to be rolling along a little farther down the path. Let’s see how far I can get.

As a child, whenever I would see some reworking of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, I would always wonder about the spirit of Christmas Future. The other two ghosts who come to visit Scrooge are obvious enough. The ghost of Christmas Past is shown as an angelic figure (male or female), and Christmas Present looks a lot like Bacchus, the God of Wine.

But the ghost of Christmas Future (or Christmas Yet To Come) is a black-robed grim reaper-like figure. Why should this be so? True, he does show Scrooge a possible vision of the future that foresees his own death, but are there other reasons? I think so.

Leaving aside the blatantly obvious faces of Xmas (birth of Christ, Saturnalia, the economic boost, etc.), Christmas is about death. Set only days after the beginning of Winter and the longest night of the year, the holidays are a solemn reminder of the transience of Man. Many of us can remember particular Christmas events, even when most of the rest of the year fades into a blur. It’s a time to stop and mark time, especially as one gets older. With more than a half-century of Christmas Days under my belt, I can easily recall specific ones – particular gifts, funny memories, sad times, etc.

While children revel in the materialistic aspects of the day, older adults look back and recall family members who are no longer around. When I was growing up, it seemed my family would last forever. But of course, eventually the child becomes the adult and leaves to start a new family. The older members pass on, and the cycle continues anew. I’ve lost more than one member of my family in December as well, which makes the absence at this festive time of year particularly difficult at times. I continue to mourn their loss, and a portion of my childhood is gone with them forever.

One of the most memorable aspect of Christmas to me has always been the music. The happy-go-lucky fun of Jingle Bells, the quasi-Medieval feel of We Three Kings of Orient Are, or the Victorian blunderbuss of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, I love ’em all. But it wasn’t until I heard a version of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas by a New York City Gay Men’s Choir, that I really understood it:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Let your heart be light
From now on,
our troubles will be out of sight

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Make the Yule-tide gay,
From now on,
our troubles will be miles away.

Here we are as in olden days,
Happy golden days of yore.
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more.

Some day soon
We all will be together,
If the Fates allow
Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow
(Hang a shining star upon the highest bough).
And have yourself A merry little Christmas now.

I realized that the choir were singing about friends lost to AIDS. It’s a sad little song about loss and loneliness. The shining stars are the people you love who are gone, and they are terribly missed. It never fails to make me cry now, because it’s a stark reminder of those I’ve lost.

And that’s why the ghost of Christmas Yet To Come is a figure of death. I still love the holidays, the music, the decorating, the presents. It’s one small moment every year when the ideas of peace and family and goodwill are at least given lip service, which is more than they see any other day. A day to share with family and loved ones, to grow those fond memories for the next generation. While the religious value of Xmas fades away, it’s still an important day, and must always be so.

But as individuals, as we age, it’s also a day to stop and take a look back. To hang that shining star on the highest bough. To remember.

Have yourself a Merry little Christmas now.

Jockey loves his Moggy dearly

Posted on April 19th, 2007 in Personal | No Comments »

I guess I really am getting old if I think that music today is deplorable. I stopped listening to the radio about three or four years ago, and don’t miss it. Most of what I listen to is from my collection (several hundred CDs) or music made by myself or people I know. I have several friends who have CDs that should be available world-wide, but don’t. Such is the nature of the biz. I’ll get to them another time, because they deserve some mention.

For now, I’m listening to much older music. I’ve grown to appreciate what would be considered “classical”, altho most of what I like really isn’t “classical”. It’s baroque, it’s medieval, it’s ancient, it’s Renaissance, it’s Elizabethan. I find it takes me back to those days, perhaps literally. If you believe in past lives, then it’s nothing new, just remembering a glint of sunlight on a lock of golden hair. If not, then it’s just good music; truly timeless.

At the moment I’m listening to one of my favourite discs –
On the Banks of Helicon: Early Music of Scotland by the Baltimore Consort. It’s a collection of songs and instrumentals, mostly from the mid-15th to mid-16th century (the newest song is from 1719). It would have been considered ‘folk’ music of its day, and you can hear echos of it in Appalachian music such as Bluegrass and the like (brought over to the hills by emigrated Scots in the 18th and 19th centuries). The title of this entry is one of the selections on the disc.

Listening to their music reminds me that once this was their world, when they were alive and experiencing it. Now it’s our world, and yet we can still hear the songs they sang. I get the same feeling when I look at old paintings or architecture. Maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to cathedrals. I don’t go to any church, but I enjoy walking the naves and aisles that people long dead once trod through. It’s an amazing thing to wonder if all these things will still be here in the 25th century, long after we’re gone, and it’s somebody else’s world. I really hope so.