Photo of parents
"...a way of smiling, a voice..."

The Situation

Here I must explain the situation that Alice had walked into. It was not a particularly pleasant one. My life was in a state of suspended animation, a kind of mental and emotional paralysis that had begun with the death of my father, eight years earlier, and had gotten worse after my mother died, about two years before I met Alice. Despite the time that had passed, I could not seem to shake off the effects of those deaths.

I had seen my parents die at the end of lengthy and terrible illnesses. I had tried what I could to save them and I had failed. They died slowly, in great physical and mental pain, and it was a hard thing to witness.

We are supposed to be prepared for such things. We know that each of our lives will be touched by death, some perhaps more than others, and eventually we will face our own. Yet I am sure mine will be easier than having to watch helplessly the death of someone I love.

Still, it was not only the distress and sorrow which I felt for my parents' deaths that had affected me. It was the moment of death itself.

At each of their hospital beds, six years apart, I saw the last breath of their lives leave their bodies. And as I sat there, it appeared that what separated them from being the man and woman I had known all my life was the shortest span of time in the universe. A miracle of experiences, hopes, stories, thoughts, a way of smiling, a voice, vanished in the smallest fraction of a second.

In an instant, an impenetrable wall blocked me from their presence. There was only emptiness here where all that life that was in them had been. On the other side was the mystery I had heard about, read about, thought about, but had never before truly felt. Now, all the parts of me where my day-to-day living had once entwined with theirs were reaching out into nothing. In a flash of absolute clarity, I was made completely conscious of the power, the terror, the blankness of death.

The physical body of my parent was lying in front of me but there was no one inside it. I could not comprehend where the person had gone to. It had been torn out by a force without form or face. Only the energy of this force was visible: in the struggle that the dying had made against it. And they had been as powerless as we who remained behind, sitting amongst the doctors and their machines, and with all our love radiating out into infinity. Everything had just stopped.

It was a scene of cold horror and I did not want to admit to what I was looking at. For my parents' deaths had given me a glimpse into a void even greater than the one that they had left in my life, and it terrified me. Death had unveiled the reality we try so desperately in our daily lives to avoid seeing: we know nothing.

It was as if a mist had been permanently removed from in front of my eyes. For what did we really know? Only that we are in a situation. We call it life. In our minds, we create a world where sciences, philosophies, religions, all offer up explanations for this situation. We accept one or more of them and carry on living.

At that moment in the hospital room I could observe the workings of the explanations: nurses bustled about; doctors arrived to confirm the obvious; relatives wept and soon began to discuss funeral arrangements. Outside in the street there was the continuing rumble of traffic. The world carried on.

It appeared as a charade, a play of make-believe that ignored the blunt reality of what had just occurred. Someone I loved had disappeared off the face of the earth. There was no explanation. It was a farce.

Yet the world expected that I keep up my part in its show and, after my father's funeral, I did try to get back into character, to return to normal daily life. But when I said my lines, they had no feeling; I didn't believe in the script. And on the death of my mother, it was soon apparent that my ability to act in this play was totally gone. The concerns and ambitions of human society seemed fatuous. Cars, buildings, people; career, love, relationships; all had no relevance. The world had split open and revealed the void in all its inexplicability.

I did not want to contemplate this void yet I could not forget it. The experience of witnessing my parents' deaths would not be erased. I was stranded at the crossroads, without signposts or map, in a place where I knew we know nothing, but could see no way of carrying on my life with that realization. And tangled up in my bewilderment was the grief for those deaths.

I fell into this grief. It wasn't difficult; my mother and father were quite wonderful people. I had loved them and I missed having them here. I wept a great deal for my loss and for the sorrow and injustice in their lives and deaths. But after a time, after each death, I found it necessary to curtail my mourning because the grieving seemed to have no end.

There is a kind of crying, a howling really, that is like going down a long dark hallway. You expect to see some light under the door at the end, but there is no door. The corridor is endless. There is no release, no catharsis. The crying could go on forever.

Eventually you have to put the tears aside, physically stop them. You must do your work, cook meals, pay bills, function in the world. But you are still in that hallway. You have stopped looking for the door; you have even forgotten all about your search. The sorrow becomes a part of you, a heaviness in you. In this state you continue to act: in a condition of arrested grief.

That is where I was stuck when I met Alice. Confused among people, angry at trifles, depressed and distracted in all my endeavours, I saw the world through this heaviness. A crazy fear came over me that anyone I loved would die; my relationships with those close to me began to suffer.

My mind was dazed and my body, a distant haze; I did not seem to occupy any space. This body of mine was only a conveyance, a backpack stuffed with my dumbfounded brain, both carried about by a ghost. The experience of these deaths resulted in my shrinking from life. I did not care to be a living creature.

Although I had made a pretence of going along with the game for awhile, it all caught up with me. I had been a composer; ultimately, I stopped wanting to write music. At the age of 39, my life ground to a halt.

I was in rough shape. And so was Alice.

Copyright 1997 by Phillip Schreibman

Photo of John and Sally Schreibman 1999 Dog's Bark Publishing

Chapter 1/ Chapter 2/ Chapter 3/ Chapter 4/ Chapter 5/ Chapter 6/ Chapter 7/ Chapter 8/ Chapter 12/ Chapter 15/ Chapter 22

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