a presumption that once our eyes watered

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.



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8 responses to “a presumption that once our eyes watered

  1. This post stopped me in my tracks. I get that sick dark feeling every so often thinking “oh I should ask my dad…oh wait he’s been gone 15 years (a number that doesn’t even compute).”
    That quote. It’s exactly it.
    As my eyes water.

  2. Claire

    I’m both glad and sorry you knew exactly what I meant. ❤

  3. Gail Flackett

    I was moved by this vignette, so poignant, a little touch to the heart

  4. I know how you feel-exactly-wrote a whole novel about this-my mom’s gone a little over a decade. this post made me cry. It comforts to know we share these kinds of feeling with our peeps out here-thanks Claire….& your daughter will go & have a wonderful time and you’ll worry….like your mom did…& like ur mom, you’ll let her go….:)

  5. Barbara

    Exactly. I do believe you have articulated an almost universal dilemma. Painful,but well done.

  6. Deb Z.

    Another great piece. My husband had a bout of amnesia (transient global amnesia), a year ago, and during it, he’d forgotten that his parents had died. It was bittersweet for those hours, to witness him without that loss. Surreal is so overused, but that it was. Good luck to you and your daughter!

  7. I think there are threestages of a parent’s death. In the first stage, we keep thinking of our parent dying. We feel embarrassed, horrified, sad that our parent was reduced to being a dying person with tennis balls on a walker, trudging along with her morphine valiantly. Often we feel guilt and think we could have delayed death, or handled it all better. We lash ourselves, hate ourselves for somehow failing. We are angry and sad and wish we believed in God so we could blame God instead of blaming ourselves.

    And then there is this second stage that comes sometime after. Maybe around three months following the death when we have been going along in an unemotional, sleepwalking way, getting back to our life, writing thank you notes for all the flowers, answering questions about how we’re doing “Great!” “Fine!”, dealing with the will and the taxes and the physical objects — what to do with all those PHOTOGRAPHS? What to do with the clothes? the perfume? the letters?. And all of a sudden we realize that we have been going through the motions of playing the part of the bereaved because we subconsciously thought that if we played our part properly, the curtain would fall and our parent would come back to life.

    Finally, there comes stage three where we begin to get our parent back in memory. A day arrives when we actually remember our mother or father laughing, talking. We remember a day BEFORE our parent was dying. And it’s such a wonderful relief, the moment this happens and we realize that we are actually getting our memories back of this amazing, vibrant PERSON who was so much more than her death.

    I loved your article about death, about the quotes we love, about your mother, about your daughter’s journey. I love the way you address the subject of what death is after ten years.

  8. Claire

    Beautiful, Claudia. Thank you!

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