I am driving on the Penn Lincoln Parkway west bound into Pittsburgh. My mother and I are going to a funeral home in Greentree. My cousin, Helen, has died--quite unexpectedly. Hell she was only 57. Not very old for dying. It is a cool day, actually quite seasonal for early March, and it is threatening rain. The traffic is very heavy for a Sunday afternoon. My mother is telling me about Helen's health problems as I try to navigate through the heavy traffic.
"Helen had been suffering from gall bladder trouble for some time now."
We approach the Squirrel Hill Tunnel and the traffic comes to a start/stop crawl as it always does at the Squirrel Hill Tunnel.
"She went into the hospital about two weeks ago and had her gall bladder removed. Apparently she was doing quite well."
We continue to inch along like a herd of snails toward the tunnel. According to the newspaper, the Southwestern Pennsylvania Regional Planning Commission is spending a 100 grand to study why people slow down as they approach this tunnel and immediately speed up when they enter it. No one can explain why there is a perpetual traffic jam for a good mile before entering the tunnel, yet the tunnel is always clear and the traffic moves quickly through it. This phenomenon does not seem to occur anywhere else. Myself, I think it's just a charming Pittsburgh custom. When in Pittsburgh, do as the Pittsburghers do: slow down when approaching the Squirrel Hill Tunnel, but go like hell through it.
"Well then something happened and she just spiraled downward. Seems as though she went into congestive heart failure."
We are now moving 20 feet, stopped for 30 seconds, moving 10 feet, stopped for 45 seconds. . . lurch forward, stop, lurch forward again.
"Hells bells, nobody expected the poor girl to die," Mom says.
I chirp in, "Well you know Ma, she always hit the old cigarettes pretty good."
I am doing a slow soft shoe routine on the brake pedal--no need for the gas, we are moving too slow. We round the bend, and the tunnel slowly comes into view. The traffic in the opposite lanes is moving briskly away from the tunnel, much brisker than the 55 mph speed limit.
"Yeah, but good God, 57, that's an awful age to die."
"Well Ma, you know, nobody gets out of this world alive."
Ahead, there is a cacophony of brake lights. . . on/off. . . flash-flash-flash. . . on/off. . . . It is a random percussion of red. As we start our final approach to the tunnel, some drivers up ahead, forgetting tradition, realize that there is no reason to be driving so slow. Suddenly the entire lane lurches ahead like a poorly connected train. Being a follower in this train, one must rapidly step on the gas and keep up, or suffer the complaint of a multitude of horns. But then, the spirit of some demented Miss Manners appears in the side view mirror of the leader of the pack, gently reminding: "In Pittsburgh, we slow down while approaching the Squirrel Hill Tunnel and drive fast only when inside." The leader, realizing his faux pas, now slams on his brakes and brings the entire lane to a screeching halt.
"That is true, my boy, but is it too much to ask for it to come later than sooner?"
"Well now Ma, if we could control that, everybody would just keep putting off the inevitable. No one would ever die," I reply while slamming on the brakes.
The brake and accelerate dance continues as we get closer to the tunnel. This routine requires a bit of skill and attention. Too slow, you get blasted by horns, too fast, you will end up in--as the British say--a smash up. Lurching forward and quickly stopping, we continue for the mouth of the tunnel, riding past the old slag dump. There it sits, right next to the Parkway, in all of its gray/black ugliness stating "this is Pittsburgh: once a great steel town." I can now see into the tunnel, and as usual, there is no traffic jam inside.
"My God, Son, where are all these people going?"
"Beats the hell out of me, Ma."
We are inching closer and closer to the entrance of the tunnel. I can see freedom a mere 15 cars ahead, just on the other side of the entrance. We lurch ahead, 10 cars now. Miss Manners strikes again, quick slam on the brakes. Way behind, some fool has a lapse of attention and the enraged horns of the followers trumpet their displeasure. Now we are moving again, and suddenly for a vague instant, I am the leader of the pack. To hell with Miss Manners, to hell with tradition, to hell with the Scaifes, the Mellons, the Fricks, and the Olivers. And to hell with the Squirrel Hill Tunnel, I floor it! Four cylinders, 98 raw horses of Henry Ford's pure power leap into life. The engine howls like an over-wound gumband, (Pittsburghese for rubberband) and into the tunnel hops my froggy looking Tempo. Our triumph is bathed in a glorious divine golden light--not from God or heaven--but from Penn DOT, our sacred state highway department. In the first 200 feet of the tunnel, they have installed bright yellow lights; the sun pales in comparison. I suppose that these lights are to help you see until your eyes accommodate to the relative gloom in the middle of the tunnel. We rapidly accelerate up to 45 mph. My mother continues to talk about Helen, but I can't follow her. I am feeling a bit of panic as the tunnel walls and ceiling rush by. I get the feeling that the walls are constricting, becoming narrower and smaller the faster we go. I can't stand these tunnels. It's not claustrophobia; I can go through slowly or even stop and not be bothered. The thought of being under millions of tons of earth doesn't scare me. No, it is the speed causing the illusion of the tunnel walls constricting that I can't stand. My intellect tells me, and my eyes can see that I am OK, but the illusion bothers me nonetheless. My knuckles, if I dared to look at them, are pure white. My palms are sweaty. My mother has asked me a question. We are up to 53 mph. Don't look at the speedometer. Keep your eyes on those walls. Fools in Pittsburgh, why do you crawl at a snail's pace outside the tunnel and go like a bat out hell inside? Half way through, my mother, again, asks me some inane question. Damn it! Can't she see that I am busy here? Some idiot is blowing his horn! A big diesel is running up through the gears! The damn walls are getting tighter and tighter! Shrinking in on me! The walls are going to squeeze the life out of us! The head lines will read: MOTHER & SON KILLED IN UNUSUAL TUNNEL MISHAP! I can hardly stand another moment of this. Damn Helen, what did you have to go and die for? Why can't you, at least, be laid out in Monroeville?
At last! Thank God! Brake lights! We have reached the geographical point in the tunnel where the second mandatory Pittsburgh Squirrel Hill Tunnel tradition kicks in. Three quarters of the way through, the traffic rapidly slows down to about 30 mph. The walls slow down and widen. The ceiling becomes higher. I relax my grip on the steering wheel. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. We will survive this trip. My mother apparently gave up on her question and is talking about the old days. We slide out of the tunnel at a harrowing 25 mph and burst into the brilliant day light. Immediately the traffic speeds up to--well, I don't know. I level out at a cool 58 mph and they are passing me like it's the end of the world. My 58 mph speed, of course, instantly attracts a tailgater who is having a nervous breakdown trying to get around me. Meanwhile in the opposite lanes, now approaching the tunnel, the traffic is a bumper to bumper snarl backed up for over a mile.
We shoot down the hill, losing one tailgater only to gain a fresh one. Around the bend, we go past the site of the old J&L works, a steel mill. There is nothing left of it now, it's completely gone. It was a fascinating sight when I was a kid. We would pass it on our way to Helen's. Great clouds of acrid orange smoke would belch out of the furnaces. The air smelled of rotten eggs. Huge blue flames shot out of a variety of stacks. On the sides of the blast furnaces, little cars hurried up an inclined track to dump something into the top of the furnace. There was drama, excitement, contraptions, noise, and stench. What a fascinating place for a kid! All gone now.
Mom continues her discussion of Helen back in the old days. She describes her wedding, the birth of her kids, houses that they lived in and so forth. I am not really paying attention because I am beginning to feel a sense of dread. Helen was only 57--too young for this. I don't handle funerals in particular and social occasions in general very well. This affair is going to be tough. My dread is ratcheting upwards as we zing through a tangle of overpasses, on ramps, off ramps, and big green signs with rhinestone letters. You have to pay attention to those signs. This is Pittsburgh; pinched between two rivers, real estate is prime here. There is not enough room to build an adequate highway with sensible exits. Driving down here requires the ability to read and change lanes with split second accuracy. One would be better served with a joystick rather than a steering wheel. The odd thing about this section of the road, the lower downtown portion of the Parkway, is how fast you seem to go. The buildings and the overpasses are very close to the road, and they just seem to whiz by.
I am about 15 years younger than Helen, so we were never exactly childhood chums. My parents were much closer to her than I ever was; she seemed more like an aunt than a cousin. That is not to say that we didn't get along or that she was mean. No, we just didn't have much in common. I have no recollection of it, but I gather from my mother that she was an occasional baby sitter for me. I have no memory of Helen not being an adult. What I do remember was an attractive woman with a gift for lively conversation, if not down right gab. Most of the laughter and carrying on went right over my young head. It was probably tastefully dirty. What a shame to have missed out on that. She was hooked on Pepsi and Parliaments. I got this strange memory of a heavy aluminum tumbler filled with Pepsi sweating down into a glass coaster. Next to the tumbler is an ashtray full of Parliament butts with bright red lipstick on the filters. Near the ashtray is the ubiquitous pack of Parliaments and some kind of a jazzy female cigarette lighter that did not work very well. Weird thing to remember, but mention Helen and the image jumps uncontrollably into my mind.
We drive up a ramp and make the sharp corner onto the Fort Pitt Bridge to cross the Monongahela River. This bridge is a complicated affair with several merging lanes of traffic on this side, and an exit and the Fort Pitt Tunnel on the other side. The bridge is fairly short and much of the traffic must change several lanes. It's amazing with all these complications, the traffic flows smoothly across the bridge and into the tunnel. The very same people who insist on a bumper to bumper snarl at the Squirrel Hill Tunnel--a paragon of simplicity by comparison--seem to be able to drive across this bridge, read a myriad of green signs, change several lanes, and enter the tunnel with no fanfare. No starts and stops, no horn blowing, no waiting. It's simply amazing.
We enter the tunnel. Because tradition does not dictate a traffic jam outside of the tunnel, there is no need to attain warp speed inside. With a sensible speed, I do not suffer from the constricting wall syndrome that frightened me inside the Squirrel Hill Tunnel. Overhead and slightly to the right, on top of the hill, is the house that my father and Helen's mother were born and raised. One more street to the right sits the house were Helen grew up. It is odd to be passing hundreds of feet below where my father lived and played seven decades earlier. There is a tremendous amount of family history passing overhead, most of it unknown to me. It's kind of weird.
In my youth, Helen's daughters were boring little girls considerably younger than I. My sister could have a good time with them, but I was always bored. As I grew older, of course, so did they and the last I can recall, they were boring, shy, awkward girls in their very early teens. Now at that time, I was a boring, shy, awkward young man in my early twenties home on leave from the Air Force. That half generation difference in our age always kept me somewhat out of tune with Helen and her family. I never had much in common with them.
We have left the tunnel behind and are now climbing the long grade up Greentree hill. It won't be long now. My dread for this affair is increasing exponentially. My mother prattles on, and I throw in a few Uh Huhs, but I am not listening, I am wallowing in anxiety. I am a boring, shy, awkward middle aged man in my early forties with a balding head and a pot belly. What the hell am I going to do? What am I going to say? I don't know what to do at these deals. My wife is lucky, she is at home watching the kid. Me, I am about to be fed to the wolves. Oh I hate this.
At the top of the hill, we exit right onto Greentree Road, and, in no time, we are in the funeral home's parking lot. The funeral home is standard American funeral home architecture--a big, ungainly, white, ugly, frame building. Apparently in some handbook for morticians there is a picture, STANDARD AMERICAN FUNERAL HOME. And why call it a funeral home or parlor? Why not a funeral office, a funeral center, a funeral dealership, funeral agency, or perhaps a funeral institute? Stupid looking place. We pick our way through the crowded parking lot, seem to go up a lot of steps, and--oh shit, here goes--open the door. In we go.
Center stage is Bill, my cousin's husband, with his younger daughter Amanda. By God, it is amazing how this boring little girl, turned awkward teenager, grew into such an attractive and engaging woman. We approach, shake Bill's hand, and give Amanda a quick hug. Poor Bill tells, for probably the one hundred billionth time, the sad story of Helen's illness and death. Standing about the room are clusters of strangers. Boy, this is terrible! Bill is doing admirably. He describes the unpleasant details with composure. He is solemn yet gracious. He is doing very well. I attempt to say " Oh Bill, this is terrible. No one was expecting this." But I only get half of it babbled out. I choke up, and tears well up in my eyes. Bill quickly looks away, bites his lip, and recovering, continues his sad story. I stand staring at the floor, gulping at the lump in my throat, and fighting back the tears, no longer hearing Bill's words. I try to reason with myself, "Come on dope get a hold of yourself. Bawling at the funeral home. Come on. Come on." More people come in and Bill finishes. It is, thankfully, time to move on. I, still incapable of speech, pat Bill on the shoulder.
I start for the safer ground of the sidelines, but my mother slips her arm through mine and says "Well Son, let us go over and view poor Helen." Oh shit again! I hate this! Why the hell do we want to go over and "view" poor Helen? It's not going to do her one bit of good, and it sure as hell is not going to improve my day. Damn, do I hate this! This is weird!
We approach the coffin and my mother is murmuring inaudibly. As I stand here before my dead cousin, all I can think about is how bizarre all this is. I sneak a peek at Helen, then quickly look away. I can smell that "near the casket" odor. I wonder what that odor is. You can always smell it around the damn coffin at a funeral home. Maybe it's something the manufacturer puts in the coffin to help mask the embalming fluid. Maybe it's the dye they use in that yucky vanilla colored fabric that lines the coffin. Perhaps it is some kind of air freshener that the funeral director sprays around. Boy this seems ghoulish, standing in front of a dead person like this. I sneak another peek at Helen, but for the most part I look at the coffin lid, the flowers, the kneeling apparatus, anywhere except Helen. The flowers? Of course, you fool, the flowers, that is the "near the casket" odor. A sudden joy of recognition hits, I like figuring things out. And that explains the eerie feeling I get in flower shops; it's the damned flowers giving me the "near the casket" creeps.
Mother continues to murmur. I am feeling very awkward and stupid. What in the hell am I supposed to be doing in front of this coffin? Perhaps I should murmur. I take another quick look at Helen. This is weird. In the coffin lies a body that, yes, I could identify as Helen, but only in the sense that a statue or a painting would resemble her. Clearly what is in the coffin is not Helen, it only resembles her. Oh don't misunderstand, there has been no terrible mix-up. The body in the coffin was Helen. . . . WAS HELEN! . . . What remains is not Helen! It is a lifeless shell.
Sure, sure, I know she is dead. I don't expect her to wink at me, laugh, or take a drink of Pepsi and a drag on a Parliament. There will be no dirty jokes. Ok, I know she is dead. However, what remains in this coffin is so totally foreign, so strange, that I can not say "there lies my cousin Helen." The body is so empty, so devoid of life; it simply is not Helen. Helen is gone. The body does not look natural, it does not look like she is just sleeping, it does not even look like she is dead. It looks like a stranger, like someone I do not know. It looks like a mannequin.
I noticed the same thing when my father died. The body in the casket was not my father. I felt no kinship or even sympathy for what remained. My father was gone. The grief and sense of loss I felt was for my father, not for the body. I felt no need to be with it or any necessity for a final farewell or even to look at it one last time. Nor did I feel any antipathy to it. The body was just something that had to be dealt with. It had to be processed through the funeral system. I grieved and hurt for my missing father, not for that body. It simply was not my father, and I had no relationship with it.
It seems that we have been standing in front of this coffin for several eons now. My mother is still murmuring. Good God, what in the hell can she be murmuring about? She is not given to fits of public prayer or chanting. What is she doing? I listen in and I hear my mother softly say "Oh my. Oh Helen. This is a shame. Oh my, only 57. Oh Helen." I realize that we probably have not been there all that long, it only seems that way.
I sneak another peek at Helen. I sneak these peeks because it does not seem right to gawk or stare. I don't know--what the hell are you supposed to do when you "view" a body? What does one look at? Should I stare old Helen in the eyelids and remind her that it was probably the damned cigarettes that put her here? Should I take a morbid curiosity of what a dead person really looks like? Perhaps note the technical skills of the undertaker--Bravo! a real ten on makeup. Should I run over and tell Bill: "Oh she looks like she is just sleeping"? Really, what is the function of "viewing" the body? Is it to comfort the immediate family? If so, how is it comforting? If it is to pay last respects, couldn't we do that with the casket closed? Probably, it is a method for everyone to verify for themselves that, yeah, good old Helen is indeed dead. There must be something wrong with me. I just don't understand these affairs. Are there people who are attracted to the body? Do they feel close to it? Or is this just something that we do? It seems terribly morbid and just plain odd to me. Maybe it is one of those things that loners do not have the capacity to understand. No one else seems to be awe-struck with the macabre abnormality of this entire affair--this "viewing" of a corpse.
Well perhaps I should join in on the ritual. I take a good long look at Helen. What the hell, she can't tell that I am staring at her. Besides, I'm "viewing". The body is in good shape. There is no sign of a long devastating illness or trauma. The undertaker has done a good job, I suppose, really I am no judge. The makeup is tastefully conservative. I have seen a few that had a garish, "let's party" look. Her hair has been fixed nicely, and she is well dressed. On the surface, she looks like she should be in the crowd with us. But there is a quality about the skin that the makeup does not quite hide. It does not look natural. It has a pale, thin wilted look, almost like onion skin paper. There is a translucent milkiness about it. It appears as if the skin, in a final act of desperation, is absorbing the color out of the light and is reflecting back from some internal chalky depth only an alabaster of lifelessness. It reminds me of the way some mushrooms have a translucent luminance. The face is totally devoid of any expression. There is absolutely not a trace of Helen to be found in this casket. Only this piece of artwork. All the humanity has been drained out of it. Must be a pretty good trick when you stop and think about it. Imagine having a freshly expired corpse. A messy thing, I'm sure. Think of the technical problems, the things that must be done. The law, of course,
requires that certain things must be done to the body. But what does it take to get a corpse into this unnatural preserved state of
"Son! Come on."
plasticized sterility that permits us to casually stand by and socialize so urbanely? What to do with the various goos that are so essential to life? What must be done to certain body orf. . .
"Son! Let's go!"
My mother has a firm, almost painful, hold on my arm. There is an edge to her voice that I remember from my youth, mostly the teen years that indicates she is running out of patience with me. She is backing away from the coffin with me somewhat incoherently in tow. Returning to reality, I gladly follow. We stop at Bill. Mother murmurs something to him and pats his hand. Myself, I am feeling guilty about having such morbid thoughts about his wife's remains. Good grief, that is family lying in that casket, how can I think such things? What is wrong with me? Swept up in guilt and sorrow, I feel the tears welling again. So once again the boring, shy, awkward, middle aged man stares into the floor and says nothing. Look at Mom, she knows when to murmur and when to pat. She seems to know the right things to say. My father was even more collected. He could handle himself at these things. He didn't stand around with his thumb up his butt, fighting back tears, swallowing lumps, or thinking about morbid techniques. Good God, didn't I inherit anything from these people? Look at Amanda, struck with grief no doubt, but functioning with grace and dignity. She can handle herself, and it's her mother. What the hell is wrong with me?
Even though I have seen Helen and Bill only three or four times in the past 20 years, always at funerals, I do care about them. They are family. My family. Although, I was not close enough that I visited them or even called, I do care. At what point do you draw a line around your life and say everything on this side of the line is important and everything on the other side is not? Things fall in gradients, not black or white, but with infinite shades of gray. Undoubtedly, there are people in this room that I am related to and don't recognize--distant relatives that knew Helen. Not knowing them, their passing would be meaningless to me. I would not attend their funerals because it would be pointless. And Helen? Well, Helen's death will make little difference in my personal life. I won't miss her everyday or mourn her passing for a year. But I do feel an intense sorrow, right here, right now. Not for me, not for Helen, but for Bill. I feel very bad for Bill, and that is where these damn tears are coming from. I don't share his loss, but I do have a compassion for it. His wife for almost a third of a century lies still in a coffin not four feet away. What will he do without her?
Mother continues to talk to Bill and Amanda, and I see an opportunity to slip off out of the limelight. What the hell, I can't say anything anyhow. Why stand here and stare at the floor? So, I carefully slide out behind Mother, and slip off to a safe empty place on the sidelines. I need a moment to collect myself. I am not worth a damn around Bill, and the best thing to do would be to stay the hell away for him.
What the hell is wrong with me? I don't consider myself a weeping sissy, although anymore, I am not sure. Some of it is the M.S. Maybe all of it is. The disease intensifies emotions and decreases ones ability to handle them. Anger and sadness seem especially sensitive in my case. Actually, I don't see anything wrong with men weeping under the proper circumstances. But in this case, the weeping is inappropriate and perhaps hypocritical. I was not that close to Helen and Bill. It reminds me of a neighbor lady. She told my wife that she was in shock over the death of another neighbor's father. Well, fine, however the fact that the guy was 88, had cancer, lived in California, and never met this woman seemed less than the proper circumstances for shock. But as my mother says, it takes all kinds to make a world.
The conversation ends in the middle of the room. My mother looks up and seems surprised by my absence at her side. For a brief instant, she searches the room with the intensity of a parent looking for a lost toddler. The look is oddly fitting. In some fashion, I have never managed to grow up. I'm still a little boy who shouldn't have to do unpleasant things like go to a funeral home. I feel guilty over abandoning her during the condolences. What would it take to stand solemnly and offer a few words of kindness? What would be wrong with standing at Mother's side and provide some strength in a delicate situation? Why is it that all I can do is stand, head down, and stare stupidly into the carpet? Why slink off at the first opportunity?
Mom starts my way, but then spotting someone heads off and disappears into another room. Here I stand all alone, not knowing anyone around me. My gaze goes to Bill and Amanda. Bill is doing very well under the circumstances. He greets each visitor and tells his sad story. But he smiles, he laughs when appropriate, and he acts as though he is very pleased that everyone has come. Bill is the type of person who probably is pleased that people have come. He is a nice guy. I have to admire his composure. He is handling himself well. The events of the past few weeks have taken a toll on him. He has a tired haggard look, a little hollow in the cheeks. maybe a bit of pallor, but I have to hand it to him, he is putting on a damn good show.
I spot a lonely looking young man, about 30, across the room who seems in dire need of someone to talk to. The poor guy doesn't seem to know anyone and has a lost puppy quality about him. In an unusual burst of compassion, I walk over introduce myself. He is "Bawhhy" something or other from "New Yawwk", and is a boyfriend to Helen's oldest daughter, Lynn. Oh crap, some obnoxious bastard! How could I judge him so wrong from looks and behavior? I immediately look for some way out of this conversation that I have so stupidly started. I am mumbling some small talk and desperately looking for Mom. This slick huckster from New Yawwk continues to talk, and I feel my discomfort ratcheting upwards. What the hell did I go and do? Good God, he is saying something about his "cawhhh". But wait, there is something wrong here. What is it? It is very subtle, but something is wrong. It hits me, this guy is actually not so bad, he just sounds like a know-it-all bastard. He is asking me something about my "cawhhh". I continue to talk with Barry and find that my initial assessment was correct. He is a nice guy who happens to have a New York accent. Once you get past the accent, the guy is very likable.
I continue my conversation with Barry, but my attention returns to Bill and Amanda. Despite Bill's performance, I can see that he is nervous. He does fine when talking to a visitor, but the in-between times when just he and Amanda are together, he is jumpy and his eyes flash about the room. If you look into his eyes--as I can do from a distance without bursting into tears--you can see the exhaustion, the hurt, the confusion, and the grief. His eyes contradict the performance. Bill quite simply is hurting very deep down. I am sure that he loved his wife, and that he is going to miss her very much. But I doubt that the reality of the situation has altogether sunk in. It will take some time for that. First the obvious things: no more dinners together, no conversation, an empty bed at night, a missing companion. But long after the initial shock and hurt have subsided, more sorrows large and small will appear. In a few weeks, the daffodils that she planted five years ago will come out. She won't be at his side at the Pirate games. The neighbor couple will have to find someone else to play cards. In a drawer, he will find the watch that she gave him on their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. Bill will have to decorate for Christmas alone this year--why even bother? Small hurts to be sure but not insignificant. Part of Bill will be buried with Helen tomorrow.
I have come to the realization that much of Bill's success in handling this situation is due to Amanda. He is using her for a crutch, and she bears the load well. I feel an odd pride in Amanda. She has not left her father's side. In spite of her own hurt, she is there to get her dad through this thing. She helps with the greeting of each new visitor. She says little to most people other than a greeting, but she listens attentively to yet another retelling of Helen's passing. She gives quite a few hugs and pats in her capacity of aide-de-camp to her father. She is a strong presence next to him.
Barry is talking about the Grand Tetons, but I only half listen. My gaze returns to the ashen figure in the coffin. There is something terribly missing from the body that used to be Helen. It is not something readily definable, it defies words. It is more than that which make us alive, or that which makes us human, or that which makes us the individuals that we are. It is a summation of all these qualities that make us who we are, but also extends beyond them. Perhaps it drives them. It is far more than the simple characteristic of possessing life. It is that which put a glint in our eye.
Years ago my father had a cerebral hemorrhage and a stroke, both of which he survived. While in the hospital, he shared an intensive care room with a man who was in a severe coma. Technically, this man was still alive; he was on no machines except a heart monitor and an IV. He breathed, his heart beat, he metabolized, but something was missing. The only difference between him and Helen was that he had better color. That essential core quality was gone. This guy was dead, but his body had not found out yet. And I can well understand why the families of these unfortunate people can pull the plug on life support. Their loved one is gone, only a breathing empty stranger remains. A body that exists in a bizarre limbo between life and death--possessing a shard of scientifically defined life, but otherwise dead. Of all the miracles of modern medicine this ability to keep a corpse "alive"--often against the wishes of the immediate family--has to be the most heinous of "blessings". The body, that shared my father's room, did expire, four and half months after the man had died.
So what is this indefinable quality that makes us alive? It is not simply life. The man in the coma had life, but he was not alive. In the after word to Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig asks this about his murdered son Chris:
. . . the question became obsessive: "Where did he go?"
Where did Chris go? He had bought an airplane ticket that morning. He had a bank account, drawers full of clothes, and shelves full of books. He was a real, live person, occupying time and space on this planet, and now suddenly where was he gone to? Did he go up the stack at the crematorium? Was he in the little box of bones they handed back? Was he strumming a harp of gold on some overhead cloud? . . . What was it I was so attached to? . . .
The loops eventually stopped at the realization that before it could be asked "Where did he go?" it must be asked "What is the 'he' that is gone?" There is an old cultural habit of thinking of people as primarily something material, as flesh and blood. As long as this idea held, there was no solution. The oxides of Chris's flesh and blood did, of course, go up the stack at the crematorium. But they weren't Chris.
And there you have it, the crux of my ramblings: What is it that was Helen, and where did it go? If Helen is just a body, then we could be quite content with a good preservation job--take her home and display her in a glass case next to the grandfather clock. Visitors could come in chat with her and comment to us how fine she looks. Perhaps to give her a good effect, the eyes could be open, tack a smile on her face, and for extra good measure a half consumed Parliament in her hand with red lipstick on the filter. But that wouldn't really be Helen, now would it? The thing that was Helen only resided in her body, much like the thing that is your family only resides in your home. Take away your family and your home becomes merely a house, a structure, an empty shell. The analogy fails, as most analogies do, in the fact that another family can take up your house, but no other "thing" can take up Helen's body. What is this thing? And where does it go?
Lynn appears across the room and walks toward Barry and I. Another boring, shy, awkward teenager metamorphosed into a beautiful woman. And beautiful is the word. Amanda is pretty, but Lynn is beautiful. She is poised and, like Amanda, knows how to handle herself.
"I see you two have met," Lynn says.
"Yes, we have been tawwking about New Yawwk, deahh."
I offer my condolences to Lynn, and the three of us chat small talk. I wonder if Lynn and I would have recognized each other an hour ago on the street. It is not as though Lynn and I go so far back that we can converse easily, but she has a moderate dose of her mother's gift for gab. Barry is not lost for words either; they make a good couple. By now, I have come to like old Bawhhy and find his accent charming. It is a part of him, and without it, he would be a different person. Imagine Scarlet O'Hara without her southern drawl--not the same. Lynn wanders off to mingle, Barry continues his story about highway contracts in New York, and I drift off again.
We had two questions: What is this thing that was Helen? And, where did it go? First, let us consider the question What is this thing. What is the "he" that was Pirsig's son Chris? What is the "she" that was my cousin Helen? Pirsig offers these thoughts:
What had to be seen was that the Chris I missed so badly was not an object but a pattern, and that although the pattern included the flesh and blood of Chris, that was not all there was to it. The pattern was larger than Chris and myself, and related us in ways that neither of us understood completely and neither of us was in complete control of.
Now Chris's body, which was a part of that larger pattern, was gone. But the larger pattern remained. A huge hole had been torn out of the center of it, and that was what caused all the heartache.
A pattern, that's good, I like the notion of a pattern. But now, what is this pattern? And when we define the pattern, we can then ask "What is the definition of this definition?" and so on endlessly. Perhaps we may have to accept that we will never successfully define this quality with mere words--each definition begging for a further definition like an endless chain of Russian dolls. But while concrete clarity may allude us, I think that we should pursue the question nonetheless. Perhaps the ultimate answers are beyond our limited understanding, yet I think that we can at least get a sense of direction to where such questions lead.
The question "What is the thing or quality that was this person?" is very profound. It cuts to the core of our being; it questions our basic beliefs. As such, people will tend to regard their views very seriously. I should imagine that if you asked enough people, that you would have about 5.3 billion different answers to the question what is the "she" that is so terribly missing in Helen's casket. I offer my answer, not to proselytize, not to change your mind, not to anger or shock you, but merely to offer an opinion. If you are looking for an answer, perhaps mine will encourage your quest. If you know the answer, then you can marvel at my ignorance. But lacking any hard evidence, I feel that my opinion is about as valid as any of the other 5.3 billion opinions. But also remember, what follows is the ramblings of a guy who works in a factory. I am not a philosopher, nor a theologian. Nor am I very bright, well educated, or even well read. Most of what follows is not original thinking, but rather a rehashed condensation from many sources: books, conversations, TV and movies, church, school, and some personal pondering.
What is the "she" that was Helen? I think that Helen was a dichotomy of the real and the mysterious. Both my intellect and my faith are needed for this answer. The real? Hell, that's easy. Helen was a human being, female, Caucasian, certain height, such and such weight, brown eyes, brown hair--on and on it could go like a coroner's report. As such, Helen was a body. It still exists, although nonfunctional, lying in the casket across the room. Less evident, but well established by science, is that Helen was a mind. Her brain had trillions of neurons. It was the mechanism of her thoughts, emotions, direct experiences, memories, personality, and psyche--her conscious awareness of herself and the world about her. As a body and a mind, Helen was indeed a pattern. She was the sum of all her mental and bodily experiences. Helen was a huge grand total of facts, events, people, places, emotions, experiences, relationships, and things. Her individual pattern stretched out to weave in with the patterns of others joining in a huge tapestry of humanity. She was the lover of Bill, the mother of her children, a friend of the lady down the street, my cousin, and a member of such and such church. Here, the hard evidence ends. If I had to rely only on this hard evidence and my intellect--that is ignore my faith--I would have to stop here. Go no further. When the body died, the mind ceased to exist. Helen ceased to exist.
But I do have faith, the mind and the body are only the tangible aspects of the dichotomy. I think that there is much more to Helen. So what is the mysterious half of our dichotomy? Here I have no direct evidence, no proof, only faith. Faith that is based on some possibly silly religious notions, thin circumstantial evidence, anecdotes, a couple of low key miracles (no great shakes really), and the observation that things just don't seem right. Taken all together, this great body of shaky evidence (none of which would stand up in court or to scientific scrutiny) seems to indicate that there is more to the universe than matter, energy, body, and mind. I think that the universe and we ourselves are driven by the mysterious.
I believe that the third and most important part of us is the Soul. It is the Soul that is so terribly missing in Helen. So what is the Soul? I think that it is a minuscule chunk of Godstuff. Less than God in magnitude, subservient to God, a very tiny but highly significant part of God. Why highly significant? I don't feel that any one Soul is any more significant than any other Soul, yet all are highly significant in that they are part of an Infinite Whole. The significance lies in the fact that a Whole minus one is less than a Whole. The loss of one Soul would change the Infinite to the finite, (granted my math is flawed but I think the Theology holds) and we mortal human beings, no matter how evil we may wish to perceive ourselves to be, can not vilify God. We are powerless to change the Divine Nature that lies at the core of our being.
Am I proposing that we should go around calling ourselves God? No. We are not God. We are mortal beings with mortal minds that will cease to function several moments after our last heartbeat. But I do believe that we are fired by a Divine and Sacred Soul that can not be destroyed. It is for this Soul that the entire universe and everything in it exists. It is for this Soul that we exist. The body and the mind are tools for the Soul. It is this Soul that is missing in the casket across the room. That is why Helen is not here, the Divine Fire of Helen has left, and with it went Helen.
So the "she" that is missing in Helen is the Soul. What is the Soul? A chunk of Godstuff. What is Godstuff? We have reached the practical limits of our understanding. The Russian dolls become impossible to identify at this point. This is where words fail us. Adequate words for the task, do not exist. We can't define God or Godstuff. Do so and you'll come off sounding like a holier-than-thou evangelist, which to be damn honest with you, is about what I have been doing here. I know, it sounds like a cop out, and perhaps it is. I am not an evangelist, I work in a factory, remember. But try this, try visualizing in your mind four dimensional space. Ok, so you're smart, try five dimensional space. Can you visualize it--up/down, in/out, left/right plus two more nestled in there somehow? Can you see how the dimensions are orientated? Good, now draw a hyperpentahedron, showing all five faces occupying all five dimensions. Then send it to me, I would like to know what such an object looks like. Most of us ordinary mortals can not visualize four dimensional space yet according to mathematics such things exist. In fact, according to relativity and most cosmology theories, our universe is four dimensional with time being the fourth dimension that curiously only seems to flow in one direction. So, if we can not visualize something as simple as four dimensional space, how are we possibly going to understand the Infinite?
God is beyond definition. Try explaining a sunset to a person who was born blind. Explain a symphony to a person born deaf. We simply do not have the capacity to understand God. Yet that does not mean that it is sinful to try, or that we must accept the definitions given by others because we are too stupid or lack access to the Divine. It simply means that any understanding that we may perceive would be limited, far more limited than a toothpick is to a universe full of Sequoia forests. But in spite of this limitation, I think we should attempt to contemplate, understand, and love God. I think we should question our beliefs, try to prove or disprove God. (I part company with the typical evangelist.) We should try to define for ourselves just what God is and what God means to us, rather than blindly accepting the dogmas handed to us by others. When you approach God on your own terms, I think that you will learn a lot about both God and yourself. But remember, our definitions will fall woefully short of the real essence of God. You can not define the Infinite.
This is the end of part 1. Click here for Part 2 , and here for Part 3.
Traffic backed up at the Squirrel Hill Tunnel inbound to Pittsburgh.
WTAE Channel 4, The Pittsburgh Channel