At my mother’s funeral, someone said to me, “You know, she’s not really gone.” I’ve thought about that a lot since then. I was raised to believe that we each have an immortal soul that lives on after we die, but I no longer believe that. If I can be said to have a soul, it’s an expression of my brain activity, and when my brain activity stops, my soul—my personality, my self—is gone. This belief doesn’t necessarily take away things like ethics, meaning, values, or beauty. But the one thing you indubitably do lose, if you adopt this viewpoint, is everlasting life. When you are gone, you really are gone.
My mother’s absence is still painful, even after four and a half years. I can’t talk to her on the phone, or share books with her, or take her out to lunch when I’m in Phoenix. And yet, it’s true that in some senses she is not really gone. Whether you believe in an afterlife or not, the dead linger on in our memories; we still have emotional reactions to them and things they did; their presence in our lives continues to influence us. In fact, maybe it was these traces of people who were gone that led humans to believe in an afterlife in the first place. If they are still in our hearts and minds, perhaps they still exist somewhere. I don’t believe they do, but I have learned to appreciate the ways that they stay present for us even in their absence.
For one thing, people who had children have left behind parts of themselves in a direct physical sense. Parts of my mother’s physical identity live on in me and in all my siblings. In the shape of my face, I can see her face, and when I am being particularly stubborn about something I am reminded of her. The unique mixture of genetic material that helped make her who she was got shuffled and passed along, in part, to us, and some of us are shuffling what we got and passing it along ourselves. It’s not the same thing as having her still here, but it is in some sense a continuation of her physical presence.
“Here in time we are added to one another,” wrote Wendell Berry. We share with each other ideas and attitudes, and we modify our behavior depending on who we’re close to. My mother’s personality has shaped mine to some degree, even beyond any personality traits I might have inherited. From long experience, I know what she would say about certain things. When I’m sick, I know what she would tell me to eat that would make me feel better. If I’m tempted to mope, I can imagine her quoting Longfellow to me (“Be still, sad heart, and cease repining! Behind the clouds the sun is still shining…”). Of course, sometimes the voice you hear is really your own, and there are people who use the line “This is what he would have wanted” as a stick to beat other people with. But if you’re honest with yourself, you can still hear the true echoes of the ones you’ve lost.
Sometimes the echoes are quite literally word-for-word accurate. “Better than a sharp stick in the eye,” I say to my sons, or “Don’t strain your zurch.” No one knows what a zurch is or even how it’s spelled (I’m just guessing) but my sons recognize the phrase right away and know that it comes from my mother. Whenever we had to move furniture or otherwise exert ourselves, she would warn people not to strain their zurches, and we’d all laugh. When discussing a person about whom it was hard to find anything good to say, she would say, “Well, he means well.” I inherited some of her tender-heartedness and I find this phrase handy myself from time to time.
People pass along countless bits of advice, some by word and some by example, that stay with us after they’re gone. When I’m particularly sluggish in the morning, I make a point of making the bed as soon as I get out of it. My mother told me when I was a child that this was a good thing to do, because then you’re less likely to crawl back in and go back to sleep. I have no idea how important this idea was to her; I suspect it was an off-hand comment that wasn’t intended to bear the weight of 35 years of remembering, but it stuck in my mind somehow and still comes to me on those sleepy mornings. (I wonder now what throwaway comments I have made to my sons that might have gotten stuck in their memories in the same way.) Whether we emulate or avoid the behaviors we see in others, we’re shaped by them the way trees are shaped by a prevailing wind.
We learn from each other all the time, and your parents in particular never stop being role models, positive or negative. Even though my mother is gone, I can still see the path she took, thirty years ahead of me on the road, and when I reach situations that are new to me, sometimes I get insight from what she did when she was at that point in her life. Maybe this is why people are sometimes uneasy when they live to be older than their parents did. Also there’s a peculiar intergenerational loop here. After my mother died, I felt almost guilty for going on living without her, and it seemed that certain levels of happiness were gone for good. But when I thought about my sons facing my death some day, of course I want them to go on enjoying life to the full and to flourish for as long as they possibly can, whether I’m here or not. I’m sure my mother would have felt the same way about me. That helped me to value my own life and continue to live it as well as I could.
In some ways, people can become even stronger role models after they’re gone, as we try to keep alive the parts of their spirit that we especially value. I think people in my family are taking on some of the things that Mom used to do. My sister and I send each other Christmas boxes and birthday boxes like the ones my mother used to send me. My sister’s twin daughters were born one week before Mom died; that was a particularly bitter pill to swallow because Mom would have loved watching those girls grow up. I think some of us step in and do things for the twins that Mom would have done, if she were here to do them. And recently I was moved to tears when my father sent me a birthday box with exactly the same treats my mother always sent. She’s still in our hearts and our memories, and there’s a peculiar poignancy in sharing these memories in her absence.
And maybe that’s the most powerful way that the dead live on: in our memories. I tell stories about the time my mother killed the dog biscuit (she thought it was a bug), or about how her spaghetti sauce was so good we used to stand around the stove and eat it on bread before dinner even started. Or about the euphemisms she came up with (“Son of a pup!” she might say, or she would call someone a horse’s neck), or the arguments we had when, at age 17, I announced my intention of getting married. But it goes beyond just having memories. A grief counsellor told me that my mother’s death didn’t end my relationship with her; it turned it into a relationship of memory. Having a relationship implies that there’s an ongoing process, and even that there are obligations on my side.
Oddly enough, the obligations can call up a sense of a person’s presence more strongly than anything else. My mother kept a diary in a series of spiral-bound notebooks for many many years. After she died, my father threw them all away. I was deeply curious about what was in those diaries, and part of me would have liked to read them, so I could get a better view of some of the events of my childhood and see them through her eyes. I don’t remember if I ever talked to my father about those diaries, but the fact that he threw them away argued very strongly to me that she asked him not to let anyone read them after she was gone. And I know how that goes. I keep all kinds of journals and notes to myself that I don’t want another soul to ever lay eyes on. Someone once read some of my journal entries without my permission and it was a deep betrayal, and one of the things I trust my sons to do after I’m gone (are you listening, guys?) is to throw away my personal papers without reading them.
What surprised me when I first thought about it was how strongly I felt her personal presence in those diaries. It would have been violating her trust if I had looked at them, and I would have felt that I had wronged her even though she is gone and she never would have known that I looked at them. The dead have a right to privacy, of course; I just hadn’t realized how intensely their presence can linger on in the extensions of themselves that they leave behind.
In addition to the obligation to protect the privacy of those who are gone, we also know that we should remember the dead fairly, and as kindly as we can. Just remembering them at all seems very important. It’s important to us first because we want to keep them around somehow, even if it’s only their photographs or some of their things. By being in the places where they were, or where they are commemorated, by reading about them, by looking at their pictures or re-reading the letters they wrote to us, we somehow bring them nearer. It’s a bittersweet sort of comfort, not like actually having them here, but it’s better than forgetting them. The price of love is grief, I read somewhere, and we’d rather pay it than forget the ones we love.
The idea of being remembered is also important to us as we think about dying ourselves someday. Warren Zevon, in a deeply moving song written when he knew he was dying of cancer, asked “keep me in your heart for awhile.” That feels to me like something that we owe to the dead. It’s what we give to those who precede us, partly because we want to, and partly because we want those who follow us to give it to us in turn. It feels like solidarity: humans in the face of inevitable loss saying to each other, “You will not be forgotten. Even though you’re gone, there is a part of you that is still here among us. We won’t let the memory of you be lost while we are here to prevent it.” I think this is why we turn over a glass for absent friends. We want to honor their wish to be remembered, and we hope that someday someone will turn over a glass for us when we’re gone too.
At my mother’s funeral, the priest sang some prayers, and the only words I remember are “eternal memory”, a phrase he repeated several times. I’m always touched when people talk about loving or remembering someone forever, because we are so finite. Marcus Aurelius wrote that we all are creatures of a day, rememberer and remembered alike. A hundred years from now, I suppose no one will remember me, or my mother. What moves me about people saying they will remember forever is that what we mean is that we will remember for as long as we can. And when the last person who knew my mother or knew of her is gone, no one will be able to remember any more. We all will have gone into the darkness that Robinson Jeffers described in his poem Night as “the splendor without rays, the shining of shadow, peace-bringer…”. In the peaceful dark, we will not be aware of our oblivion and won’t mind it. Meanwhile, for as long as we’re here, we’ll hold those who have died in our hearts and there, at least, they will never be really gone.