Loss is something with which I don't deal very appropriately. Emotions often seem to pop up at the wrong time and place (and conversely sometimes don't appear when they should). I occasionally wonder if something's wrong with me, and while I'm more than sure there is, I don't think this is it. I just have an odd way of processing loss, a way that differs immensely between people (or animals or things or...) and my environments. There's always the chance that something will hit me immediately. More often, however, there's a delay between news or acknowledgment and the moment when that news actually hits home, and when it does that hit is unspeakably powerful. Sometimes it's days, sometimes it's months. That sort of feeling never really fades away completely; much like an earthquake, periodic aftershocks of the feeling--far less intense yet still recognizable--crop up just to make sure you're still capable of feeling pain. They serve a two-fold purpose; while they remind that someone or something is now gone, they also--and in my opinion this is far more important--remind you that they were once there. The two ideas are inseparable, as logically one cannot exist without the other, yet this makes it no easier to endure. And thus today's post begins on a more somber note than is the custom, because I'm using it to note the fact that over a year ago the world lost one of the most amazing people I've ever known.
My aunt was a figure in my life who became more and more important as I grew older, and I'm frequently haunted by the regret of not realizing how crucially wonderful she was until late in the story. She was a woman who was literally always there for me, be it through a phone call, a card, a gift, or simple support. She was the most important adviser in anybody's life: that which provides a calm, collected, and rational viewpoint from which to view any decision, crisis, or problem. She was one of the few people that kept me sane during some of the hardest times of my life and served as the person to whom I could go when stress was overpowering me, assuring me that everything was not lost--except "served" isn't at all the correct word to use. To serve implies a sort of hierarchy, upturned to such an extent in this case as to render the word unusable. She didn't serve as an adviser; rather, I was astonishingly lucky to have her as someone willing to help me out when I was failing. In short, she was the person that I absolutely needed, there to assist me at every turn I needed to make, and all while she was fighting a battle of her own.
Cancer is a wretched disease, a fact of which I'm sure many people need no reminder. It attacks the body, yes, but it is far more powerful at attacking the soul, and even stronger in attacking those nearby. It takes a person and tries to reduce them to a shell of what they once were, gutting them of every last bit of energy. And it was while battling this, through years of treatment, hopeful remissions and crushing reappearances, that my aunt was by my side through thick and thin, without a clue on my part as to what was happening. Her strongest wish was that her fight not make me any more concerned than I needed to be during the various ones that I fought. Again, I'm haunted by the insignificance of my worries compared to something of this magnitude in retrospect--but would it have been better another way? Would it have been harder on her knowing I was worried? I can claim no judgement in the matter. I was initially made aware of the situation perhaps two years ago, and was shocked, but at the time it was in remission--merely, then, a blip on my radar. Life continued, and I grew closer to her. But with time, as these things often happen, the cancer returned, with a vengeance, and over the course of the next year her condition slowly declined.
I was able to physically visit her just before the end, which may come as a surprise without the knowledge that we were separated by a thousand miles, and the combination of my schedule and her condition made travel nearly impossible. I later learned that her biggest regrets involved not being with me more often, but I wish she hadn't bothered herself--she always felt just as close, even if only in spirit, not body. Only then was I fully impacted by the toll the disease had taken on her. For those who have not experienced this, I hope that you never have to; it's as if you've been punched in the stomach, the force of your mind scrambling to update its mental image of a person while at the same time trying to process the implications which have become, with this new sight, much more pressing. I will forever be grateful for those few days, because they allowed the establishment of a peace that still comforts me. I now understand the origins of the expression equating eyes to the window of the soul, because as far deteriorated as was her body, the aunt that I always knew and will forever know burned in her eyes and faltering speech with a frightening strength that told me in no uncertain terms that she was still there. I needed, to my greatest pain, to eventually return to my home, and so I shared a few words with her and left.
The day I arrived home, I was told that that morning, she had peacefully passed away. I feel as though I should say I was crushed. But that would be inaccurate; there had been a part of me all along that had known that I wouldn't see her again. Instead, anger set in. She did not deserve her fate, nor did she do anything to bring it on herself. The world had, in the end, looked upon her cruelly (in my eyes), and she was called back far too early. Had it not been for one thing, I don't know how I would have survived that time, and that thing was this: there is not a shred of doubt in my head that she was not taken from this world against her will. Seeing her told me that, and knowing that she was still there, even at the end, told me that. I am unquestionably, unshakably, and eternally certain that she did not go until she, and nothing else, was ready.
Cancer did not beat her. She beat cancer.
So where, I wouldn't at all blame you for asking, am I going with this story? Am I retelling it merely as a catharsis or as a way to make your day that much less enjoyable? I hope not, because this is not simply a story of a loss. It's a story of what I gained afterward, the conclusion to which, for better or for worse, I have come in the year that has passed. There have been many, many moments when I was overwhelmed by a sense of burning injustice. How could she be gone? How could she have been so rudely taken from everyone who loved her, everyone who cared about her, and everyone she impacted, when people barely deserving of the term "human" still freely roamed the earth? With all that she had done for me alone, never mind hundreds of others, why had she been pulled so abruptly from our lives? Was there nothing that made sense in how we live or die, except the fact that we are subject to chance in all matters? And still, in each of those moments, I was sustained by the idea that she had impacted my life so much that perhaps she wasn't actually gone. Was there any way in which I could keep her spirit alive? Maybe.
And so, in the time that has followed her death, she's kept on affecting me, reshaping my view of the world. Perhaps we are in fact all at the mercy of a blind, uncaring fate. It would certainly seem as much when viewing our lives in perspective. Because we know nothing else, we as humans tend to view our lives as all-important. We place unimaginable gravity on what occurs between our birth and our death for the simple reason that that is all that we know and all that we will ever experience. But what is this compared to the life of other things? Our cities? Our planet? Our galaxy? Nothing. Time has a way of blending things, removing items from collective memory. Cultural icons from decades ago are already fading from our minds, recalled only every so often by nostalgia. Historical heroes, with some exceptions, are contained almost exclusively in the pages of textbooks. And all of this pales in comparison with larger still lifespans. In billions of years, everything we've done, everything we will do, and everything we can hope to do as a species may very well be relegated to a footnote in an archive. Our planet itself will pass away, as will our sun, our galaxy, and all beyond. We are nothing more than a blink in the Universe's eyes, insignificant beings clinging to the surface of a bluish rock hurtling through the incomprehensible void of space.
So in the midst of this (and I ask that you bear with me--as much as it may now seem, I haven't completely lost my mind to existentialism), how are we to find the will to do anything at all? How are we to effect any sort of recognizable change when it will just be evened out? I like to think that I can do exactly what my aunt did. My aunt had a view of life that kept her positive in the face of insurmountable odds. She viewed every person as having good within them and did her best to replicate that good in her own actions. And maybe there's a chance I can do the same thing, because here is how--thanks mostly to her--I now view the world around me, and it's a view that's independent of religion or culture. My aunt's passing left a dark spot in the world--there's no doubt about that. But she did something that negated that; through her treatment of others, she left the world a little bit brighter than it was before she entered it. I think therein lies a meaning of life--not the meaning, because no two people are alike, but at the least a meaning to which I will subscribe. I don't know why I've been brought into this world, and I'm guessing I still won't know by the time I'm taken out of it. In a few centuries, everything and anything that I'll do will probably be forgotten. But because of my very existence in it, I have a responsibility to try my absolute hardest to make it a slightly better place for my having been here, not just for those currently around me, but to try and spark a change in others to do the same for those that will come after me. It's not hard at all. Consideration of others' viewpoints, a millisecond's thought before acting, a functional conscience--a few small things are all it takes to make somebody else's day that much easier, that much better. And lest I sound hypocritical saying this, I'm well aware of how often--and how spectacularly--I fail at this simple task, but nobody's perfect and I'm still trying. It takes so little to effect such a change in somebody's life that if even a mildly significant number of people concentrated on doing so, the world would be leagues better than it is.
What, then, do I do from this point on? I'll continue what I've been doing. I'll keep doing and writing about nerdy things, eating far too much pizza, trying to curb my irritatingly short temper, writing and refactoring code, and reading good literature far less often than I should. In short, I'll keep trying to stumble through whatever Fate may throw in my direction. And my pledge to the world, in a sense, is this: when my time's up, I hope to have made things a little better for someone else than before I popped in to visit. If I'm lucky, I'll cause a net increase in the amount of good on the planet. Sometimes--many times--I'll fail. I know that. But I'll keep trying, because why not? It's the best thing I can do to follow my aunt's example, and I hope with all of my heart that I can inspire others to do the same.
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust?
Subscribe to Kienan Knight-Boehm
Get the latest posts delivered right to your inbox