Forty-eight hours after a technician turned off our son’s life support, my husband and I found ourselves going through the two suitcases and one backpack that contained virtually all of his earthly belongings. Basketball shoes, a navy parka, a half-empty tube of toothpaste, t-shirts, a folded print-out of his university classes for that summer term, some Polaroid photos of the one week he’d had on campus. On our knees and speechless, we fingered through sacred debris while alternately holding in and letting flow stinging streams of disbelief.
In Global Mom: A Memoir, I describe the moment:
A nice woman had gone to Parker’s dormitory and packed all he’d had in his room. Late one night, we’d sat, Randall and I, on someone’s living room floor in that university town, sifting through those things: his journals and class notes (his handwriting); his wallet; a Post-It with “remember to call Kevin”—simple, chest-crushing tidbits. A bitter, obliterating treasure hunt. His laminated student ID with its unwitting, wide-open smile. I’d clasped it ferociously to my heart.
In an outside pocket of Parker’s backpack, we found a notebook with “Religion” and “Life” written on the cover. “I just wonder what…” Randall’s voice receded as he opened to the single page of scant notes from this class Parker had attended during his first (and only) week at university. There, in green felt tip was this heading:
“What do we take back through the veil?”
Not your usual question, even for a religion class. And certainly not typical for an eighteen-year-old college freshman whose wide eyes were riveted on a future chockfull of promise and invulnerability. He had all those pages to fill, after all, his whole life story to write.
Those pages. How they gawked at me, empty and echoing, void of my child’s voice. I had to grit my teeth to hold in a yowling tornado of agony as I imagined our son, robust and buoyant, jotting down those words so casually. I could envision him chatting in class, (“Parker, you raised your hand. Any thoughts?”), yakking away about death-as-theory. Then he would be slapping the notebook shut, slipping it into a backpack, and slinging its weight over his shoulder. Off to meet death head on.
The ink had hardly dried on the page before death itself answered this question for Parker.
What did that answer look like? What remained of Parker after he was pinned for several minutes in a lethal whirlpool, knocked out under water, then flushed out head first over jagged lava rock waterfalls? Anything? Did oblivion claim him?
If Not Oblivion, What?
Let’s try to imagine the possibilities. Did something endlessly him transcend flesh and bones, homeostasis, neurotransmission? Did this essential self, his spirit, peel from his oxygen-deprived body which was dragged by students to a patch of waterside gravel? Did spirit-Parker watch students encircling his body as they screamed, “Don’t leave us, Parker! Come back, Parker!”
Could his immortal identity, his distinct self, have been totally present and brightly aware of the paramedics panting as they attempted and reattempted CPR, barking, “Compressions! Keep on the compressions!” Did he see the local hospital emergency nurses hold those defibrillators to his chest again and again and again, then give shots of epinephrine? Was he present as the life flight pilots settled their helicopter on the landing pad then rushed his gray-blue body on that gurney into the regional trauma center? As his mother knelt, groaning, at the side of his body in the ICU? As his father bent over his firstborn’s feet and held them, praying? As his sister and soul mate touched his forearm then folded into sobs? As one younger brother stared in shock and the youngest huddled in the arms of a friend in a hallway? As the classmate, the one Parker had risked his life trying to save from drowning, was ushered into the room?
During a day and a half of coma, was whatever constitutes the inextinguishable Parker somehow close at hand? At the moment the doctor pronounced him brain dead did Parker hear those words? And as the ventilator’s whoosh was silenced, did my son communicate to some of us around his gurney, “I am here. I will always be right here”?
My point is not to convince anyone of what for me is self-evident; that Parker (and you and I) are immortal beings. I don’t need to take on Nietzsche, Camus, Hawking, the long list of nihilists, or the even longer list of neutralists, the ones who shrug and chuckle, saying, “Es ist noch niemand zurückgekommen.” (No one’s come back yet.)
My point, instead, is to explore one thing: To what extent might that green question change our lives?
One True Sentence
What if that question were our life thesis, influencing our desires, choices, behavior? What if, as I wrote my life story, I were to place that question as my thesis statement? Right there on page one and in neon green?
Hemingway, referring to writing, called this kind of guiding idea the “one true sentence.” It structures creation, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, chapter by chapter. When applied to writing our life story, that “one true sentence” works as an underlying grammar or fusing phrase for all we do and are. It is our mantra.
I mentioned this in another blog entry:
If my life’s aim were reduced to “one true sentence,” as Mr. Hemingway said breeds the best writing, what would that sentence be? And how does that one truth, that driving thesis, move me through my days and weeks? Does that sentence —spare, compact, sleek— train my concentration, make my life coherent, single-themed, resonant with integrity?
I like “What will you take through the veil?” because it is an instant sifter. It separates the significant from the trivial. It boldfaces what is lastingly essential and fades what is not. So much of what gets my goat (not to mention my time, energy, money, focus) is frivolous; too much of what is truly durable, sadly, gets short shrift. That question, if internalized, winnows away distractions, and slackens the sweaty grip of temporality, materialism, self-absorption, greed, despair –– so many ills. It even undoes the deadening choke of nihilism.
As another bereaved mother and author says:
The pain of losing my child was a cleansing experience. I had to throw overboard all excess baggage and keep only what is essential. Because of Paula, I don’t cling to anything anymore. Now I like to give much more than to receive. I am happier when I love than when I am loved. I adore my husband, my son, my grandchildren, my mother, my dog, and frankly I don’t know if they even like me. But who cares? Loving them is my joy.
Give, give, give — what is the point of having experience, knowledge or talent if I don’t give it away? Of having stories if I don’t tell them to others? Of having wealth if I don’t share it? I don’t intend to be cremated with any of it! It is in giving that I connect with others, with the world and with the divine.
It is in giving that I feel the spirit of my daughter inside me, like a soft presence.
…My daughter Paula taught me a lesson that is now my mantra: You only have what you give.
Think about it: How challenging yet how refining to write one’s life story based on the conviction that what remains with us at death is that which we have given. That by sharing our experience, knowledge, talents, stories, wealth –– even our whole selves –– we don’t just become one with others, the world, and the divine, but we ourselves become people who are bigger, richer, more fundamentally alive. Simply put, there is much more to us when we die.
And that’s what it means for us. What does it mean for Parker?
I think it means that at the age of eighteen years and five months, and on a summer evening in his first week of university, in a canal with an unmarked, deadly whirlpool, he went back in the vortex twice to free a fellow student who was trapped and drowning. And he did not lose life.
He gave it. He gave it and he has it more than ever, even now.