When I was growing up, Death was a word I rarely had to use. I suppose that’s the thing about nuclear families: they sometimes privilege the unit at the expense of others in the kin. Occasionally, a distant relative I had never met succumbed, or there would be a report on the news of casualties somewhere from disaster or conflict, but mostly they happened there, and I was here -two very different places. I had no problem coping with it; apart from sadness, there seemed little else that would result –could result- from no longer being able to see the person in the flesh. Of course I felt devastated with the death of a pet, but in time, even that faded as other life unrolled around me. Sadness was an ache that healed.
I don’t mean to sound unfeeling, or indifferent to the suffering of others, it’s just that human Death wasn’t something I had to deal with in my youth. It was only later, with the death of my parents, that the full haze of sorrow descended like a cloud and persisted long after the ceremonies for each. I try to remember them as they were, and still trace events throughout their lives until they were no more. Neither funeral was the end of my memories about either of them, of course -each rite was just another marker in a book I could open any time. The ceremony was important, though: we all need an epilogue, a final demonstration that we mattered -a recognition that, in all of time, we did exist for a while.
Perhaps it’s a gift of Age, but what I’m only now coming to realize, is how devastating a person just disappearing without a trace can be. A thoughtful essay by Andy Owen brought thoughts about Death to my attention once again: https://aeon.co/essays/a-missing-person-is-like-a-story-without-an-ending
‘People aren’t meant to just disappear,’ he writes. ‘Disappearance can expose an existential fear in those left behind – what could make you question your self-esteem more than the knowledge that you could just go missing without a trace? This is why some states and armed groups have deliberately ‘disappeared’ those seen as their greatest threat.’
‘There are some common themes across time and cultures that make what Boss [U.S. psychologist Pauline Boss, who started working with the wives of missing US airmen in the 1970s] calls ambiguous loss – the loss of the missing, a loss that has never been fully confirmed – so difficult. One is the inability to perform the appropriate rituals or rites that help us manage loss.’ Another, of course, is not knowing whether or not the missing person is dead. Whether or not the relatives should mourn, or keep hoping…
‘In The Sense of an Ending (1967), the British literary critic Frank Kermode investigates our need to make sense of our lifespan with fictional stories that have an origin, a middle and an end. ‘What puts our mind at rest,’ he writes, ‘is the simple sequence.’ We are, all of us, stories with a universal grammar; it is not followed -not possible- with the missing. The ending is important in a story, it makes sense of the narrative. And if the ending is not there, we are sometimes forced to make one up.
Owen tells of the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami in Japan in which almost 20,000 people died or went missing. ‘Survivors of the disaster soon began seeing and feeling ghostly presences; people dressed in warm clothes at the height of summer, hailing taxis and then disappearing from the back seat.’ Stories need endings.
When I was still a child in a Winnipeg public school I had a friend named Russel Vásquez. He and his mother had moved from somewhere in Mexico, I remember.
Russel, like me, was shy and although he didn’t talk very much at school, we lived across the lane from each other and I would see him sitting by himself in his backyard pretending to read. I could tell he was pretending because he never turned any pages. It was as if a book gave him an excuse to sit by himself.
One day just after school had finished for the summer, I walked across the lane and called out his name. He smiled and put down the book and stood up to greet me. I don’t think he’d made many friends at school, but he seemed happy to talk to me. His English was heavily accented, and although at first he looked embarrassed, we soon realized we had a lot in common and became the kind of friends only children of that age can be. Before long we began trading information about our parents.
His mother was an teacher, like mine, but although I mentioned that my father was an accountant, Russel didn’t offer to tell me about his. Only when summer fully matured, and we had become best friends, did he admit that he didn’t know what had happened to his father. Both his parents had been involved in something that involved a lot of phone calls, and they got mad at him if he asked about it. One night after he’d gone to bed, Russel heard someone banging on the door to their house, and then what sounded like a fight. His mother had come running into his bedroom a few minutes later and told him somebody had taken his father so they had to leave right away.
“Didn’t your mother phone the police?” I asked.
He just shrugged. “Many gangs in my country, and I think some of police are work for them.”
“But did your father join you later?” I was aghast at what I’d heard -it was nothing like Winnipeg.
Russel shook his head slowly and I could tell he was on the verge of tears. “My mother no say it, but I think he probably dead… We no heard from him since he left,” he added in a soft voice.
Russel stared at me for a moment. “We no talk about it now… Okay?”
I realized then that there are some things that even best friends can’t discuss.
But one day at the end of August, I remember Russel running excitedly across the lane when he saw me coming. “I see him today,” he yelled.
“Where?” It sounded too good to be true.
“With some people in the Eaton store,” he said, lowering his voice and looking around furtively. “But when I call him, maybe he no hear, and he disappear in the people again. I try to find him, but…”
“So what did your mother say?”
His face wrinkled. “She outside on a bench waiting for me, and when I tell her, she don’t believe me at first. And she look more worry than happy, you know. She tell me I can no have see him…”
Just then I heard his mother calling him from their back door and he shrugged apologetically. “She think I see things,” he explained. “That I see…” he searched for an English word, then gave up and shrugged again. “…fantasmas…” We both knew what mothers were like, so I just rolled my eyes.
I was too young at the time to understand, but Russel and his mother suddenly moved out of the house across the lane before school started that fall, and before he could even say goodbye.
I never heard from him again. Stories need endings…