I offer the following series as an addition to your cultural sea. For me however, it has little to do with culture. It is a singularity which I orbit in a decaying fashion, eventually to be swallowed by it. You are following the same trajectory, whether you want to or not. I shall be fascinated to read your thoughts along the way, because many of you are traveling at high velocity, though you may not know it. Death awaits us.
What is death? And what happens when you die?
Years back, I was heading out on a research trip to Europe. While driving away from my home onboard the airport shuttle, I glimpsed my smiling kindergartner walking home from school. I waved, but he did not see me.
I arrived at my destination, planning to stay about a month. It was late spring, mid-June. The weather was beautiful, flowers in bloom and I was staying on a university campus, in an empty dorm. Not the most comfortable accommodations you could wish for, no food service, large community shower. But dark and very quiet, like a grave. Completely alone during the evening and early morning hours, I found it easy to study, but not always easy to think.
One morning at 3 a.m. I awoke to someone pounding on my door. It was my research collaborator. As I dressed he quickly told me of a phone call he had received from one of my neighbors. There was an emergency at home and I was to call as soon as possible. There was no useful phone service in the dorm and he hurriedly drove me to his place where his wife waited, looking somber, but saying nothing. I tried calling home, but frustratingly, no one answered.
Later, I was able to get through and spoke to my wife. She told me that our penultimate child, our five-year-old, in the company of another boy, had squeezed through a fence guarding a local canal. He wanted to wash some pretty stones on the bank to give to my wife, but he got too close to the edge and slipped down the mossy concrete side into the very cold mountain waters. My son had taken swimming lessons, but was unprepared for this experience. The water was far too swift for him to fight it. The boy who witnessed the accident was so shocked that instead of running home with the news, he walked in a daze. When he arrived he simply said to his mother, “I guess Eric’s dead.” His father, who could not swim himself, ran to the canal and found my son floating face down a few hundred yards from the point of entry. Paramedics were called and revival was attempted. Continuing CPR, they went to the emergency room where his heart was restarted. Two ward members gave a blessing.
The next day, while writing in my journal, sitting in my dorm room, praying that my son would live, I knew he was now dead. When my friend picked me up to use the phone at his home, I confirmed this with my tearful wife. His heart had stopped during the night and he could not be revived.
The next few days I did not sleep. My heart rate stayed high, above 160. I was able finally to get a flight to Paris but had to change airports there for a flight to the US. By good fortune (I believe intervention) the way was opened and I made the flight as the doors were closing. Another two ad hoc links got me to my home. A scene of immense pain awaited. My wife was shattered. I met my other children on the stairs and I shall never forget their embrace as we sobbed together.
At the funeral home, I went into a side room to see his body. I put my arms around him, wishing for a Lazarus-like experience I knew would not come, while I held the cold lifeless body to me. In my minds eye, there came a kind of vision. My little boy and I were standing on a boat, docked at a wooden peer. My son stepped off and the boat moved out into the stream. I watched his face disappear in the mist as fear overtook me. I was forgetting him. His expressions, dinner conversation, laughter, the feel of his soft breathing as we cuddled in a sleeping bag during our nutty winter camps, his beautiful smile. They were already leaving me.
(part 2 is here.)