“All men contain several men inside them, and most of us bounce from one self to another without ever knowing who we are.” –The Brooklyn Follies, Paul Auster
“He is at least three different men, and she at least three different women.” –One of Us Is Sleeping, Josefine Klougart
The dead and their identities
At different moments in our lives, we are different people. With different people, we behave as different people. We are who we need to be in our circumstances. We may embody these many people all at one time; we may embody these people at very different and distant moments.
I think now of a woman whose life has now ended, but who was at one point a young, abused wife with several children to consider, who was at another point a brave abuse survivor who became a single mother when she found the strength to leave her abuser, who was at another point still young and beautiful, meeting a married man who would father her ‘accidental’ final child but never be with her or know his son, who eventually met a new husband, who eventually gave her another identity: widow; a woman who always, somehow, made ends meet, who was loved and, by some of her children, resented, who still cared about having her hair done even in the last days. At each moment or phase, she was who she needed to be.
And then she passed away, as we all do. The end was not unexpected, as death comes for all of us. And certainly sooner for the elderly and infirm, which she was. But, despite various ailments, death had not been imminent. She had not suffered, had not struggled with dismal health. Reduced mobility, increased anxiety, more dependence on her youngest child, but nothing that made her lose her will to live. No, the time just came that her body, tired from living these many different, and often quite painful, lives, went to sleep and stayed asleep. The way we all hope to go… feeling just a little unlike herself suddenly one evening, getting into bed and not getting out of it again.
She had been living her normal life right up until that last night: ordering her new prescription glasses, having some new knickknack shelves installed, expressing anticipation about watching her soaps and other shows. But in hindsight the last couple of weeks might indicate that she had known deep down that the end was coming soon – people do seem to know sometimes. She was putting different things in place; she was offering her adult children whatever little things she had that could ease their paths; her social club (where she went and socialized actively right to the end) was quite insistent the week before she died that they have a copy of her do-not-resuscitate order on file. The signs perhaps had all been there, and she had internalized her peace with it.
The one who dies isn’t the one who lives with the aftermath, though. Those who live grapple with the aftermath: the prospect of a world without the departed. Over the course of days, weeks, even years, grieving in new and unexpected ways, often coming to terms with the identities the departed inhabited about which they had never known. And now can only glimpse or never know. And no one can know if any – or all – of those identities truly were that person. Did the departed even know him/herself?
“There is no evidence of the soul except in its sudden absence. A nothingness enters, taking the place where something was before.” –Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen
The youngest son, the one who was closest and had cared for her day in and day out, discovered her, still and peaceful, lying exactly as she always had in sleep. He knew, immediately, but still tried to shake her gently awake. Frantic wailing came only later, garbled and panicked statements that made very little sense, all uttered in shock and the kind of inconsolable grief that comes from that shock. Later, after the initial panic of not knowing what to do, once the rest of the family, the authorities, appeared, he calmed down into fearful coherence: “What am I going to do? What am I going to do without her?”
She had always been his anchor – both the kind he never wanted, weighing him down and making him stuck somewhere, but also the kind he always needed for stability and support. What happens with the loss of that anchorage? The eternal struggle of figuring out not only who he was and is – but figuring out what his identity is and will be without her in the world. How do we define ourselves once we are motherless? A strange and painful rebirth into a world empty of the person from whom we were… birthed.
RIP with love, M.