My father died last night. So I just wrote this to try to process what has happened.
Here’s the thing:
I have nothing cheery to say—nothing poetic or optimistic, comforting or spiritual. No one here can or will comfort me or you or anyone else. So I don’t know if I’ll try. But we’ll have to wait and see. I’ll have to wait and see.
Reduce personality, everything we call “human”—emotions and language, and everything derived from them—and you’re left with a machine. To put it bluntly, we’re meat machines, organic robots that, over time, evolved “self-awareness.”
Our brains make us who were are: my brain makes me me and your brain makes you you, and so on.
Our “experiences” of “reality” are products of our brains. Our brains are composed of cells, ten percent of which are neurons. These neurons communicate with each other by firing electrical impulses down something called an axon. Bundles of fiber called synaptic knobs terminate the axon. These knobs are filled with sacks. These sacks are filled with chemicals called neurotransmitters.
When neurons communicate with each other, they release neurotransmitters into fluid-filled spaces called synaptic gaps, which are nestled between the synaptic knobs of one neuron and the dendrite of another neuron—the dendrite receives a message and fires it to the soma, or body, which then fires the message down to the axon, and the cycle is repeated.
We, each of us, have one hundred billion neurons in our brain. These neurons fire in all sorts of combinations at any given moment. It is the way these neurons are connected, and how and when they fire, that allow each of us to be distinguished—what we might call personality.
Our brains receive information from our sense organs and interpret this information, using it to build models of the “world” outside our bodies. These models are created and refreshed constantly. You can, in a very real way, say that, each of us, each human being, is, in a sense, trapped within the Matrix constructed, and maintained, by his or her brain.
Life as we know it, and by that I mean the subjective “life” that you or I experience, is, ultimately, a product of our brains. Over time, our brains have developed software to help them streamline and prioritize the overwhelming amount of information they receive at any given moment.
The sense of self is one such piece of software.
Some cognitive scientists like to refer to the sense of self as an illusion. But illusion, in this sense, seems to imply that the sense of self is creating a mirage, so to speak, of something that obtains independent of human beings.
I prefer to think of the sense of self as a delusion, a false belief. But why is it a false belief? Am I not different from you? Aren’t I a unique little snowflake? Aren’t we, each of us, as unique as snowflakes? Don’t my hopes and dreams, guilt and regrets and fears differ from yours? Don’t these differences help to distinguish you from me?
To a degree they do. But only those that aren’t inculcated by our culture. And those that do differ speak to the variety of minute interactions, the totality of which accumulate to create a panoply of possible and actual experiences.
Here’s the thing, and this is, I suppose, the point:
What we call life—individual, subjective life—is a product of our brains. That I “experience” things is evidence that untold combinations of those billions of neurons are communicating with each other.
This is life. This is the cold, harsh, unpoetic series of processes we call life.
Our experience of these things some people call “life” and “reality” is a product of our brains, of meat teeming with electrical and chemical activity.
Knowing this can provide something like consolation when contemplating death.
If experience of these things some people call “life” and “reality” is a product of our brains, dependent on the electrical and chemical activity of our brains, then it’s easy to consider that, on termination of such activity, all experiences cease. Everything stops.
When a person dies, he or she probably doesn’t “experience” death—because “experience,” as far as anyone can tell, is a product of a functioning brain. At most, it’s possible that a person “experiences” the beginning of the process of the cessation of all electrical and chemical activity, the totality of which we might call death. But there is room to doubt that a person can experience death in any meaningful sense.
This is, as cold as it may sound, a consolation. When my dad died, he didn’t know he was dead; he didn’t have time to grieve or to mourn or to regret, or to fear the processes stifling his “experience.”
A functioning brain allows us, each of us, to experience pleasure and pain, hope and fear, happiness and anger—or embarrassment, excitement, or humiliation, et cetera. Such observations lead to another consolation, small as it might be to those of us still alive: in death, there is no pain or misery, no anger or stress or humiliation.
Again, it might be a small consolation to those of us still grieving, but it is a consolation. And, in this case, one is better than none.
And here’s another thing:
We grieve. We regret and we run scenarios through our heads that fill us with guilt. This is a natural process, I think. And our behavior—those actions observable by others—when we grieve differs from person to person—some cry and some lament; some deny; some fight the tears and create the appearance of emotional stasis.
Each tactic is, I think, appropriate. And I don’t know if one is a better tactic than the other.
But when you stop to consider it, crying or fighting the urge to cry are two actions that represent the obverse and reverse of the same coin, I think. Each action is a means of shackling ourselves in the prison we call grief. Degrees of observability are, I think, the only difference. One action is observable by others and the other action requires greater attention to detect.
And serving time in this prison is necessary, I think.
Grief is a process, and it’s an important process. Equally important, I think, is how we terminate the process of grief. Do we resist it or prolong it? Do we experience the process in such a way that it impacts us five or ten, fifteen or twenty years down the road?
Considering it now, I think “terminate” is an inappropriate phrase. “Termination” implies an end point, as though we’ll grieve and grieve and then, one day, we’ll consciously decide to stop grieving. Anyone who’s ever lost someone knows that’s not how it works.
The process seems to work more like this: we, each of us, grieve, and then we continue to experience these things some people call “life” and “reality,” and when time passes, enough time, the immediacy of death no longer deluges us, and we’re no longer oppressed by the neurons transmitting dark or sinister or guilt-ridden messages throughout our brains.
Back to the brain, for a minute, and to the sense of self, and then I’ll wrap this up: how our sense of self is exhibited to other people is a product of the people with whom we engage. That is, our sense of self is a mirror of those around us, a mirror that reflects information that we non-consciously pick and choose, and the processing and interpretation of this information enables our brains to manufacture this delusion we call “Self.”
This leads to the second prong of the two-pronged tragedy of death. Our sense of self is a mirror reflecting—mostly non-consciously—what we perceive about others. Without other people, I wouldn’t have a sense of self, at least not as I currently know it.
My dad is a person whose reflection helped me to establish and maintain my sense of self: he’s one of those people I reflected in my kaleidoscopic sense of self. And now that he’s gone, the reflections must, by necessity, be internalized, which will change them.
They are now relegated to the realm of memories. And memories change. We alter and re-encode a memory whenever we retrieve it. So eventually, the fear is, my memories of my father will be altered by the situation in which I retrieve them, which means a part of me—the unalterable person he was, a person I then non-consciously reflected—truly did die with him; a part of me will never be the same.
My dad is now dead, and his death consumes me, and so while I’m in this state, I’m altering every memory of him. Every memory is sad or tragic, somehow. Every memory triggers feelings of guilt or regret. And that’ll change. Eventually it will change. And when I retrieve these memories in the future, I’ll alter them to fit my future circumstances, and I’ll re-encode them, hopefully diminishing or eliminating the tragedy, the sadness, the grief.
Where the second prong of the two-pronged tragedy of death is subjective and more or less solipsistic, the first prong is the tragedy of the cessation of the life of the person we love, a tragedy exemplified by the fact that he will no longer laugh or love, dream or think, consider or hope or fear; that he will no longer nit-pick this or criticize that; that he will no longer enjoy the ability to experience “life’s little pleasures,” those idiosyncrasies that enabled or helped him to, if only for a moment, escape the stress or negative emotions—good and bad—concomitant with living.
Realizing this is a tragedy that the situation has thrust upon us. This is something we—like it or not—must face: dad is dead, and all of his joys are joys no more; all of his proud moments are proud moments no more; and all of his secret dreams and ambitions are lost. Forever.
I, of course, and probably everyone I know, would prefer to avoid this situation. I, and everyone else, of course, would prefer to know that dad is alive and well and at home nitpicking and criticizing or laughing at and enjoying everything. That situation, where dad is alive, is not, unfortunately, a situation we’ll ever face again.
But he’s still with us. And he will always be with us. In addition to our memories, the planet on which we live has stored parts of him. Forever. And those parts, whether we know it or not, will always be with us.
Matter can be neither created nor destroyed—this is a fact, cold as it may seem, that can bring consolation. The atoms dad breathed ten years ago, or on the morning he got married, are still in circulation. It’s possible, even probable, that the air I’m breathing right this second contains at least one particle that his lungs jettisoned when he uttered, “I do,” on the altar as he consented to spend the rest of his life with my mother.
In this moment, as I take a breath, I am sharing a moment with dad. And it’s possible that every moment, and for the rest of my life, that as long as I take a breath, I’ll inhale a particle he exhaled, so that every moment for the rest of my life will be a convergence of moments, simultaneously past and present, that I’m sharing with my father.
For me, and this is another little consolation, the last time I faced that old situation, the one is which dad was alive, allowed me to, in hindsight, extract something like meaning from the event. I talked to dad a few hours before he died, and it was a good conversation, although probably, in the grand scheme of things, banal. Dad and I were never ones to communicate love, to express it. But recently, probably in the last year or so, we started ending our conversations by saying, “I love you.”
I ended my conversation with dad, just hours before he died, by saying two things—I’m glad I said the first and I regret saying the second: “I love you. I’ll talk to you later.” I regret saying, “I’ll talk to you later,” because I now know that it’s a promise the situation won’t allow me to keep.
So I’ll revise it now: “I love you, dad. And I’ll talk about you later, and often.”
And I love you.
And for those still “experiencing” these things some people call “life” and “reality”:
The neurons in my brain and in your brain, and in the brains of everyone still “alive,” fire and wait to fire and fire again. We are alive and we now must confront the fact that someone we love is no longer alive. And the neurons that trigger sadness and regret, the neurons that retrieve and re-encode memories, are the same neurons that will help us get through this situation we’re currently facing.
And nothing will be quite the same. And some things will change. And although nothing will be the same, eventually we’ve got to hope that, at some point, despite the current circumstances, everything will be what we’ll one day call “all right.”
And that’s not a bad thing—as long as we never forget the person we’ve lost. And as long as we remember this: when we take a breath, we’re sharing a moment, through space and time, with dad. So take a breath and hold it—you may have just inhaled an atom dad expelled the moment he was born. In this moment, he is both alive and dead, his life ahead of and behind him. And you and I are the common denominators linking both scenarios. And we’re experiencing his life with him. And we’re sharing a moment, this moment. And that’s all we can ever really want or ask for—or need.