Someone died last week. A young man, or young to me, since he was only thirty-nine. And in the week of mourning that followed, those of us who loved him fall into a kind of silence. The disbelief—it was stomach pain, he went to the hospital, how could he be dead two days later? The electrifying shock when we can at least momentarily admit the reality—wait, he is DEAD. But still and all, a kind of strange silence in the midst of life. Like cotton-wool padded my ears and eyes.
And now we come out on the other side, after the wake, after the standing-room only funeral, after the celebratory reception, after the burial. The distant friends have left. It is time to return to life, which comes rushing in, the sounds, the movements, the people, as though I had passed through a black and white prism for a time, but now color has flooded the world once more.
A man walks his two collies. A large man, like the young man who died. For a moment, I can imagine it is him. He loved dogs. But of course, it is not. A cyclist comes speeding down the hill in an opposite direction, helmet firmly in place, the clackety of the mountain-bike wheels whirring. Two boys toss a football and laugh at each other’s jokes. People have gone on living during our hiatus of mourning.
In the first and last stanzas of his poem “Funeral Blues,” W.H. Auden wrote
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come. . . .
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
But of course, that last line is not true, not for very long. Good continues, children laugh, someone looks over the fresh dent in his car, a woman takes out the trash and stops to talk to the neighbors doing the same. The quotidian details of life continue. And we come out into this world of the living—the living who have not thought much of death today—and we have to work at getting our bearings. Pablo Neruda in “The Dead Woman” insists upon it, exclaiming, “My feet will want to walk to where you are sleeping, but/ I shall stay alive.” And so we must, too, keep on walking into life.