Letter to a Friend Whose Father had Died
I wrote this letter many years ago to a friend whose father had died. I think it has something to say, so I reproduce it here.
My dear friend,
It has been two months since your father died. Now is the time when friends become unsure whether to speak or remain silent. Perhaps it would be better to keep quiet about the dead, let them sleep their sleep, and allow the waves of time to slowly smooth away the marks of memory and loss. For now, inevitably, the overwhelming physicality of new grief will have died away to some extent. Now there may be minutes, hours even, when you forget that your father has died and then the memory returns and perhaps you think that if even you, his son, cannot keep his memory alive, then what will happen ten years from now. I suppose this is one of the most difficult things about the dead; one knows that they will never again come and remind us of themselves, of their overwhelming suchness, of the fact that each and every one of those who have died was once alone and unique, and there will never again be their like in this world.
I remember when my Auntie Dottie died. She was the last of my father’s sisters, the slightly eccentric old spinster who had never married. Well, in her later years Auntie Dottie defied all the expectations one might have of an ageing spinster by moving to Italy to work as the housekeeper for an old Italian. Expectations were even further astounded when she went and married him. ‘There’s juice in the old girl, yet,’ one might have said.
But I do not want to be sentimental about her. Auntie Dottie was a lovely person, kind and gentle and slightly vague. Yet one could also say that she was ineffectual, that the world marked her passing even less than it had marked her presence. Like so many many others she will be forgotten when those who had known her are themselves dead. It will be as if she never existed. There are no children, no traces of her presence in the continuing blood of others. So what does her life mean? It means, if meaning is to be found in terms of worldly effect, virtually nothing. She, like so many others, was one of the extras in the movie of history, one of the people who appears briefly on the screen and then disappears, and is not even mentioned in the credits at the end of the film.
But this is not true. For if it were then we too would be fools and idiots playing in a shadow show for the drooling amusement of idiot gods. But an idiot god could not have made Auntie Dottie, nor the blind and stupid forces of chance and necessity. No, she was held in being as gently as a child holds a puppy when it is first given to him and knows that this squirming licking ball of life is his to look after.
Is this not the reason for the extraordinary uniqueness of each and every created thing? That when first they are held, cupped in being, there is again the sense that that which was not, now is. It is alive, it exists and it is itself and no other.
Then this also must be true. It cannot be that all the things that have their existence have been brought into being for any reason other than a love that passes all our understanding and yet we know well. For think now of how it was when your daughter was born. And then imagine how it will be in the years to come. There will be times, no doubt, when she will irritate and anger you, yet in memory those will fade away quickly yet that which is in her and in you, causing the love between father and daughter to grow, that will be remembered.
And this I think is the essence of it. Here I believe the action of our memory mirrors the structure of reality in its deepest nature. That which is beautiful does not fade away. It remains in our memory as a trace of what caused it.
Nothing beautiful ever dies. Nothing good passes away. Because they are the only things that are real in the first place. Ugliness and evil, these are illusions and like all illusions they must disappear when the conditions from which one views them disappears. And this illusion is life, when viewed as restricted to our passage from the womb to the grave. We no more come into existence at birth than we leave it at death for I do not hold my existence in my hands. No, I am held in the arms of another.
Think of this letter. The thoughts take form in the words I write. But once it is finished the letter will be taken to the post office and pass through the hands of many others, over land and sea and time, until finally you will sit and read it on a night and in a place far removed. Yet in the reading I will be with you again.
So it is with all of us. As you hold your daughter in your arms, and you were once held by your parents, and they by their parents, and so on through all the generations of mankind back to the first parents of our kind, so we can trace our writing back to the mind of God.
Nothing beautiful ever dies. Nothing good passes away. The flower blossoming for a day on the slopes of an unknown mountain is seen, the song of a bird on a lonely island is heard, the myriad lives that have passed unremarked by that whore we call history are known. There are no extras. Each spear carrier is a hero and everyone is a star.
With all my best wishes,