Not exactly how I wanted to kick off my return to the blogosphere, but so be it….
When I was a very little boy, my Aunt Patty, my mother’s older sister, used to take me with her everywhere. I can still remember driving with her in the front seat of her blue 1959 Chevy Impala as she would run her various errands with me as her sidekick. These excursions inevitably wound up with a treat for me, such as a candy bar, or, if I had been particularly well behaved, an ice cream.
One of these trips wound up at a local candy store. The woman behind the counter took a shine to me, and asked me my name. For reasons that, to this day, are really not clear to me, I replied, “Stephen Schwartz….and this is my Aunty Patty Schwartz”.
I have no idea where, at the age of three or four, I had even heard the name Schwarz, let alone why I decided at that point to adopt it as both my and my aunt’s nom de guerre. But this story remained my aunt’s favorite over the years. She told it at almost every family gathering, and seemed to especially relish the retelling whenever I introduced her to a new girlfriend.
She loved telling that story, but loved even more the memories of those days before she was married, before my sisters were born, when she could just pick me up at a moment’s notice and spend the day with me.
But I will never hear her tell that story again. She died on December 30th, at the age of 73.
My Aunt Patty was living proof that life is not fair. Over the course of her life she endured financial hardships brought about by circumstances beyond her control. Her lifestyle was abstemious, and yet she suffered from a variety of illnesses, including diabetes and cancer. Although she drank alcohol only occasionally, she suffered from cirrhosis of the liver, coming literally within hours of death before a new liver could be found. And even though she never smoked a day in her life, she suffered from a lung disease which is what eventually killed her.
If anyone had a right to be angry and bitter at the hand life had dealt her, it was my Aunt Patty, and yet this was never the case. The truth is that I never knew a more relentlessly cheerful woman. While she came across as mild mannered, she was in truth one of the strongest and most resilient people I have ever known. No matter what life threw at her, she handled it with unfailing grace and courage.
I remember how once, when I was visiting her during one of her stays in the hospital when she was being treated for lymphoma, I remarked at how she always seemed to be in a good mood in spite of all the misfortune she had to endure. She replied, “What’s the point in getting mad? You take what life gives you and you do the best you can. Every day that I‘m alive is a blessing.” And I remember how amazed I was at how calm, even serene, she was in the face of everything she was going through.
And now she is gone. I’m still having a hard time coming to terms with the idea that I will never see her again. While I realize that death is part of life, it is still a very hard concept for me to get my mind around, that I could be close to someone for almost fifty years, that they could be a regular part of the landscape of my life, and then, suddenly, not be there. Not now, not ever again. There is now one less person in the world who loves me.
And there is, of course, the guilt. As an adult, I became so preoccupied with my own life that I did not always have enough time for the Aunt Patty’s in my life. I often wondered if her constant retelling of this story was her way of telling me, “We were close once. Why aren’t we still that close?”
I have no excuses. Laziness, apathy, and a tendency to put things off till tomorrow all lead to my denying this woman who loved me as a son something that would have made her happy: some time with me. And no matter how guilty I now feel, I can’t give her that now. It is too late.
I now wonder how much unhappiness I caused her. She was on the phone every day with her sisters and friends. Perhaps it is not as bad as I imagine. Now I will never know. Perhaps I don’t want to know.
At the wake, I marveled at the idea that this dead body I was praying over had, only a few days previously, been a living person, with thoughts, emotions and feelings. And I am left to ponder: what becomes of these thoughts, emotions and feelings when the body that houses them dies? Do these things that truly make us what we are die with us? Do they, and we along with them, truly cease to exist, as the Existentialists would have us believe?
If this is the case, then the universe is simply a bad joke. Why, in a universe that has been around for over 14 billion years, and shows every sign of going on for another 14 billion, are we only allowed 70 or 80 years, if we’re lucky? Furthermore, we, alone of all the creatures on earth, actually have the capacity to contemplate this fact, which only leads to further unhappiness. So we get to spend 80 year alive, and then several billions years dead. And we get to spend our 80 or so years thinking about it. What’s the point? The Existentialists would answer that there is no point, and that, to me, is dismal beyond imagining.
So is there any chance that our thoughts, feelings, and emotions live on? Is there, as some would call it, a soul? I believe the answer is yes. It is, perhaps, more of a hope than a belief, but to me it is the only way that any of this makes sense.
It is not that my continued consciousness is necessary for the universe to make sense. I realize I’m not that important. But I do believe, or at least want to believe, that the physical universe apparent to our five rather limited senses represents only a fraction of what we call “reality”. The world’s religions, diverse as they are, all represent man’s desire–need, really–to come to terms with this nagging idea that we live in a reality we don’t understand, that the part of it that we do see is only the tip of the iceberg. Otherwise, our ridiculously brief time on this planet seems to count for very little in the long run.