“Losing Streak,” by Kathryn Schulz. The New Yorker, 2/13/2017.
Ahh . . . these are the articles that keep me renewing my subscription.
Schulz begins by describing her developing tendency to lose things. She describes the instances that have plagued her. She describes instances that have plagued her family. She adds some statistics: The 18-inch rule: most missing things are less than two feet from where you expected them to be (I’m not convinced of this). That the average person misplaces nine objects a day (although not permanently). In a lifetime, you will spend six months looking for stuff (that sounds true). Cumulatively, Americans waste 54 million hours per day searching (so does that).
Interesting, but, ho-hum. She is an amateur, a beginner, still too young. She will learn more about losing things as she ages. We know.
Then . . . just as I think I am reading about what is an obvious, daily irritation to most 80-year-olds, she hits us with a zinger, switches direction, and I find myself up to my neck in thoughtful insights. Death is also a loss, she tells us, but a loss without the possibility of being found. Lose an object and we assume it still exists—somewhere. We can still hope that it will be found someday, unchanged, just as it was. As my mother often told me, “Someday it will turn up when you’re not even looking for it.” But not the loss by death. She never turned up again.
Schulz’s father developed health problems. He wrote to her about an upcoming medical test: “Have no idea when the autopsy will be and may not be informed of it.” (You’ve gotta like that guy.) Her article suddenly becomes the story of her father’s death and her attempts to cope.
When the rituals of death were abruptly finished—the funeral service over, friends and family returned to their lives, the clothing donated, the thank-you cards sent out—she found herself at loose ends, struggling to occupy her day. She hadn’t felt such boredom since childhood. Just as in childhood, there is plenty to do, just no interest in doing it.
She finds herself looking for him, searching the faces of strangers, hoping to find him as one finds an object, although she realizes she never will, but perhaps she will discover some sense of his presence. She finds nothing.
The lay theologian and Christian apologist, C. S. Lewis, mourning his wife, wrote, “Is anything more certain that in all those vast times and spaces, if I were allowed to search them, I should nowhere find her face, her voice, her touch?” After their lifetime together, he only finds “the locked door, the iron curtain, the vacuum, absolute zero.”
Our classmate Marilyn Fox Smith wrote a eulogy to her husband in 2012. She says, “On my morning walks, I ask Bill where he is and, so far, have not received a clear response.” Her pain is palpable and brings tears to my eyes.
I assure visitors to Longwood Gardens that the old Peirce-du Pont House where I volunteer is not haunted, but I will try to come back and haunt it myself someday. I don’t expect to. Houdini famously vowed to come back, but he never could.
Schulz says of her father, “His absence is total; where there was him, there is nothing.” We use the word “lost” euphemistically when we say things like, “I lost my spouse,” to soften the blow, because “loss” implies continued existence, the possibility of being found.
Buddhism 101: Nothing is permanent; everything changes, everything will eventually be lost, no matter how dear, no matter how cherished—every object, every person, every relationship, every desire, every memory. The lesson is to appreciate what you have now because someday it will surely be gone. Everything. That ultimate finality of everything is both the intelligence and pain of life.
The finality of death is an important aspect of life. If some people could continue interacting with the living after death, the entire meaning of life—for all of us— would be different.
Schulz adds her own take: Why should the loss of life matter so much? We do not live in the end; we live along the way. It is the finding that is astonishing—finding our life-long partner, finding a new career. We need to constantly attend to the present, honoring what we love, denouncing what we hate. “We are here to keep watch, not to keep.”
Good stuff. Thanks, Kathryn.