I have a bunch of pages stuffed into a file drawer that are covered with my high school attempt at calligraphy. I never mastered the fancy writing, but I come back to those pages every couple of years to read through all my favorite quotations. Because that’s what they are: a collection of phrases and paragraphs and stanzas from the books and poetry I was reading back then. They’re pretty far ranging–I have quotes from Thomas Mann, Colette, Fitzgerald, TS Eliot, among others (I read good stuff back then; not so much now). Some day I should just type them up and share them here.
Anyway, there’s quite a few from Tom Stoppard, whose plays my father loved and whom I loved back then too (a painful realization: I haven’t reread any of his plays in decades). I’ve always liked this one: “We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered.”
But today I found myself remembering a different quotation, one which, like the above quotation, comes from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
I was thinking about how anxious I’m feeling about sending my daughter away on a trip with friends for over a month, and then I reminded myself that I was being ridiculous to worry and that I was almost her exact age when I went off to college, and then I wondered whether it had been hard for my mother to watch me go, and then I had two thoughts at the same time, which is weird, but really happened, and the two thoughts were:
1. I’ll have to ask Mom how she felt back then, and
2. Mom’s been dead for an entire decade.
The two contradictory thoughts clashed and the second one destroyed the first one like rock beats scissors, and I felt it like a physical pain.
And that’s when the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern quote was suddenly there, not full-blown or anything–it was choppy and came in bits and pieces and I had to look it up later to get it exactly right here–but still, I heard the words. I even felt them.
“No, no, no…you’ve got it all wrong…you can’t act death. The fact of it is nothing to do with seeing it happen – it’s not gasps and blood and falling about – that isn’t what makes it death. It’s just a man failing to reappear, that’s all – now you see him, now you don’t, that’s the only thing that’s real: here one minute and gone the next and never coming back – an exit, unobtrusive and unannounced, a disappearance gathering weight as it goes on, until, finally, it is heavy with death.”
Stoppard got it right. The initial disappearance of someone you love gives way to something else, something that isn’t at all dramatic or exciting or public, something small and private and personal, which stays and only grows with time, and which, for me, pretty much boils down to one simple, sick feeling:
I want to talk to her, I can’t, she’s not here, she won’t ever be here again.