52 Authors: Week 37 - Alexander McCall Smith
Bergman: The Silence and Through A Glass Darkly

The Terrible Truth

...And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

That's Frost, from "Out, Out—", a poem you may know, and should know if you don't. It's one of his masterpieces. You can read it online at the Poetry Foundation.

It's been on my mind for the past couple of days. I got word last Friday of the death of an old and close friend--I've mentioned him here occasionally, the "Robert" who introduced me to a lot of good music and other things over the years. I feel the loss, and I'm going to miss him. And yet--as Frost says, one turns back to one's own life, though it feels somehow wrong that the world having come to an end (we suppose) for one person, it should continue for the rest of us. My usual routine has hardly been disturbed. 


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The first time I read this poem was in a Freshman English class. I was 23, everyone else, I think, was straight out of high school. The professor asked what happened. Nobody else seemed to know. I explained. I'm not sure how I knew. The other students could not seem to grasp how everyone could just go on with their life. It was, apparently, inconceivable to them. There was a palpable silence in the classroom. They were stunned. Then, the professor told us that he had walked into a room one day and found his young son dead--and how it's true--you go on. I probably remember this more clearly than any other class I ever had.

Shortly after the semester ended, my 21 year old brother-in-law died in a fire. Away from the Church, and not sure what I thought about death myself, I had a very hard time accepting this, but all the same, pretty soon life just went on.


It always feels terrible to me, that this happens. And yet, what else can we really do?

I'm sorry for the loss of your friend, Maclin.

Thank you, Louise. I feel pretty hopeful about his destiny, but it was certainly shock. One of those totally out-of-the-blue phone calls.

I can understand why that would stay with you, Janet!

In sympathy -
In recognition of the value of poets - and of writing -

I am sorry for the loss of Robert, whom I never met but was grateful for, with all th3e music you shared that came from him...

Please allow me to extend my commiserations.

"One of those totally out-of-the-blue phone calls."

I had one of those a few years ago. A total shock.

Thanks to you all.

Daniel, I got a lot from you, too, and it was not unusual for the two of you to recommend the same things. That overlap was always interesting and a bit amusing to me since I'm pretty sure you would not have gotten along with each other.

I'd never read that poem before. Sort of wish I hadn't now.

That last line about turning to their own affairs sounds heartless, as if the sad and horrifying death had never happened and we simply move on. But we really don't, do we? And I know in my own case, they often show up in dreams.

It is a poem that's difficult to bear. But so much of life is.

I don't have that dream experience, but it is true that a person who really mattered to you does stay with you.

My sympathies, Maclin. I will offer my communion for Robert tomorrow.
In my experience, although we turn back to our affairs, we get blindsided every so often by how much we feel the loss.

Oh yes. I have been so surprised this year how often I have had that experience with Mother. Blindsided is exactly the right word.


It's not so much a sense of pain with me as a sort of shock that the person is not there. I still get that about my father, who died in 2001. Two days after the WTC bombing. That was a weird time.

And thank you, Anne-Marie.

Well yes, Maclin. Aside from a few really painful moments, it's usually when I see or hear something and think, "Oh, I have to tell/ask Mother about that." And then I realize. I'm amazed at how often that happens because I'm sure I didn't think about her that much before she got sick. There are a thousand things that I would like to know that nobody in the world knows now. I tell, my children to ask me questions now because they will be sorry if they don't.


Condolences, Mac.

Besides the loss of the loved one these things always make me ponder the passage of time, and other losses related to it. For there are always things that the person in a sense takes with him when he leaves.

These losses also remind me once again how important it is to always be mindful of the fact that this could happen to any of us at any moment. Since my friend Rita, who was my age, died about 5 or 6 years ago, when I'm with my friends, I always try to be aware of the fact that this might be the last time I see them. So many of them are in their 60s and 70s now. I don't ever want to leave them in a way that would make me sorry if I never saw them again.



Thanks, Rob. The phrase "living memory" has become very poignant to me. World War II is passing out of living memory now. The majority of people now living (I suppose it's a majority) have no memory of the 1950s, and are at the mercy of those who wish to create a propagandistic mythology of the time. And as Janet says, to realize that there are now things--just little familial thing--that no one alive knows is sometimes almost shocking.

When you deal with 18-to-20-year-olds on a daily basis, you realise how short "living memory" can be. Taught a class today where nobody was aware of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.


Gosh, Paul.

I miss my elders (grandparents' generation) terribly, particularly since 2010 when the last one died - my Nan's youngest sister.

I'm glad I know that my mother and her siblings loved living in the 50's and were really happy. I must make sure to convey to my children as much of it as I can that I've heard about.

I'm glad I know as much as I do (not enough though) about my mother's and grandmother's childhoods.

Truly disturbing occurrence about 12 years ago, when my daughter was around 6 or 7: "Mum, what was it like in the olden days?" (referring to the 70's!!)

I nearly fell out of my chair!

Paul, just today one of my kids asked, "What's kneecapping?"

I may have said this before, but I started our kitchen-wall timeline the day a child asked in amazement, "Grampy was alive during World War II?!"

I'm discovering the limits of living memory, too. My sister has been going through our grandmother's letters and is finding passages that contradict oft-repeated family stories, sometimes in mutually inconsistent ways. We have inconsistent family trees from different sources, too, including differences in the number of my great-grandfather's wives! (Although even if my grandmother were still alive, her capacity for self-delusion and her desire to make life form a suitable narrative would probably keep us from figuring out the truth.)

Heh. It's a whole different game when you can't even trust the memory-holders to tell the truth. And memory of course is often defective. I discovered not too long ago that my mother and I have totally different memories of some things, and not from my early childhood, either, but from my teen years. There's no way to know which is right.

I don't remember the specifics now but I know my children asked me some amusing questions about my relationship to history--"did they have cars then?" etc.

There's a thing that circulates every year or so in American academic circles that's designed to keep educators aware of the sort of thing you mention, Paul. It goes through a list of fairly recent events that are ancient history to them, and on the other hand changes that they have never not known. Though I suppose the troubles in NI are too far back even to rate a mention there.

I'm all too familiar with the experience in Maclin's first paragraph.

What gets me about kids not knowing about the past is that I always did. It must be because I read a lot and I watch old movies and I listened in on grown-up conversations. This makes me wonder if kids don't do this anymore.


I love it that we have The Terrible Truth and Reject the Lie going at the same time.


That is pretty great.

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