My Friend’s Mother Has Died

Last week I wrote a post about the impending death of my good friend’s mother. Unfortunately she died on October 13, 2014. Here is an excerpt from my friend’s correspondence informing me of the event. (Remember this is a native French-speaker writing in English. How beautifully and movingly he writes.)

Hi John,

… Mum has passed away (oh what it is to write this!) last night. I was with her and I think she did not feel anything thanks to the morphine. Although how could we know exactly what a brain feels when breathing stops? I can’t believe there was no fear but the drugs probably make it softer.

It’s a huge loss. She was an exceptional lady, radiant with goodness and always trying to make others feel good. A humble and generous person and I can’t really imagine how the world is going to be like without her, without its pole, without gravity. I am going to miss her terribly. I am so lucky that I could have her and now I look at my kids who give me the call of the future.

On Thursday she was starting to feel very uncomfortable and dizzy and it was beginning to be complicated to keep her at home. It would have been necessary to arrange a full 24 hour nursing at home and most of all I knew that she didn’t want to appear to the kids in a pitiful condition. So the doctor arranged her transfer to a hospital of palliative care.

On Saturday driving back home from the hospital (where I was to stay overnight with mum the next night and again the next when she died), I heard on the radio, while I was driving along the dark lake, a lovely poem by Emily Dickinson in a French translation. I felt it was as if mum herself would have sent it to the radio for me to hear at the dusk of her life. Back home I looked on the internet and found the English original:

If I shouldn’t be alive
When the robins come
Give the one in red cravat
A memorial crumb.

If I couldn’t thank you,
Being fast asleep,
You will know I’m trying
With my granite lip!

I am lucky I have Marina and the children who help me to look toward the future and give me peace, serenity and joy. I will keep my sweet mum with me in dear memories and pleasant remembrances all my life, as it was she who cared and nurtured me in my early life, and together with my father, taught me how to live. And why would parents do this if not for the day when they can no longer be with us, so that we can live well without them!

And here is my response.

Dear Louis:

I hope things are going as well as can be expected. I will admit that I often believe that life is basically tragedy and any meaning it has eludes us. But there are oceans and mountains and sky, and there are friends and family and food. The things that make life worth living. There is also the hope that somehow it all makes sense. I wish I could say something more profound but we are small minds in a vast, impenetrable universe (or multiverse!) Still I won’t resort to metaphysical fantasy which, while comforting to some, is nonetheless fantasy. Instead, as you know, I fervently believe that death is an evil that should be eradicated, and which our science and technology will do if left to proceed unabated.

In your hour of grief perhaps Camus might help. He saw that abstract ideas bring about a distance from the world; they draw us away from the actual. But we must always come back to the commonplace for meaning, to what surrounds us, to what we I call the ordinary extraordinary. No theory or abstract truths mitigate existential realities, only our complete engagement in our lives can temporarily do that.

Camus made these points clearly in his essay “Summer in Algiers.” (Your forthcoming vacation by the Aegean made me think of this.) There amidst sea, sun, sand, and sex he mused: “Between this sky and these faces turned toward it, nothing on which to hang a mythology, a literature, an ethic, or a religion, but stones, flesh, stars, and those truths the hand can touch.”

Perhaps that is all we have, but perhaps also it is enough. Find peace on your island my friend. Find it in the sound and smell of the sea, in that vastness from whence we came.

The Greek Island of Naxos

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