“…The dead have more claims on you than what you might want to admit or even what you might know about and then claims can be very strong indeed. Very strong indeed.”
— Cormac McCarthy, No Country For Old Men
He looked through the window at the waiting day and in the young light of the morning it was gray and the ground was frozen and the world moved slowly. A light snow began to fall. Days like this were treacherous and the benign gray tinge to the world gave no warning of the bitterness awaiting one brave enough to walk outside. If he were smart, he would turn around and crawl back into bed. He heard a car labor to start down the street and ventured out the door.
He stood there in the cold and the snowfall for a long while. The cold resonated with him. It seemed to understand him. The physical discomfort it caused matched the unease in his heart. Sparse snowflakes drifted reluctantly to the frozen ground, as though they would rather remain in the clouds. He understood their reluctance to do what one was made to do. So he stood there, in the presence of something that understood, something that allowed him to bring mind, body, and heart into one again. A rare experience these days, and he stood.
He then began to run and the sound of feet hitting pavement was all he heard. Later he heard his labored breath as the cold air began to sting his lungs. Often he wondered why he ran, wondered if he was running towards something or away from something yet unknown. He would then reason that time passes to reveal what is yet unseen. So he would cease to wonder and continue to run, for on cold mornings such as this, that took energy enough.
He ran for two miles, returned home, showered and dressed for the funeral. As he walked through the stained oak doors and into the chapel, he noticed the empty seats and the dirge of an aged organ. He was aware of the sweet smell of flowers, juxtaposed sharply with the acrid air of candle smoke and loss. He felt out of place, it wasn’t customary for someone in his position to attend a funeral like this.
He had only cried once, three days after he had heard the news, at the thought of forgetting the sound of her voice. It is details like these that tether the lost to the living. To forget them is to lose them in the ethereal labyrinth of neuron and synapse and things spiritual. He was not ready for that. Despite these thoughts and the regret and the longing he would not cry again. He had made himself numb and he had expectations to live up to.
He sat and watched the candles and the smoke as it rose, floating lazily to the vaulted ceiling blown by the breeze let in by the old building. He watched as people continued to file in. He watched as the reverend spoke. He rose as the casket was carried away and he stayed in the cemetery until everyone else had left.
As he made his way across the frozen ground made uneven with memories rendered permanent in stone, he saw a fallen sparrow, speckled brown with a white breast darkened by the weather. In its beak was a piece of string, frayed and dirty. He crouched to examine the bird and felt forlorn at the thought of this its unfinished nest and its struggle to make a life for itself alone. He couldn’t help but wonder why this bird had not made its way to warmer climes. But then again, sometimes it does seem easier to take the hard road to failure, marching to the beat of one’s stubborn drum, than to allow oneself a chance to succeed while falling in line.
He picked up the sparrow with unused tissues from his pocket and made his way back to the gravesite where two men in navy blue jumpsuits were lowering the coffin. Ignoring their stares, he placed the sparrow on the casket of the woman. She had always admired birds, they had many conversations about them and he imagined her house still stood surrounded by birdfeeders, without seed or sugar water, waiting for the ice to thaw. He reasoned that this sparrow deserved as sophisticated a burial as any creature did dying in the pursuit of its dreams. He grabbed a handful of soil and sprinkled it on the casket as it was lowered and left the cemetery.
When he arrived home, he collapsed on the couch in a broken heap, a movement he would scold himself for undertaking were he to do it in public. Tonight however, his apartment was empty and quiet and still. Unsure how to feel, he felt nothing. Unsure what to think, he thought not. Unsure what to do, he did what most creatures of habit do and clicked on the television. He continued searching through the channels knowing he would find nothing to watch. Of all the emotions he expected to feel after a funeral, apathy was not one of them.
Maybe he didn’t need to grieve. After all, he had only known her over the course of several months; each interaction packed into 15-minute appointments and brief phone calls. Does someone really need to grieve for someone they knew for such a small amount of time?
Not two days later he would begin to feel empty and he would realize that it’s not the amount of time spent with someone that fetters a part of your soul to theirs, it was the quality of the relationship shared, the part removed callously by loss. That was the only way to explain the hollowness that now filled his morning runs, and his hours in the clinic.
Eventually, he would learn to embrace the loss he felt. He gave it place and time and purpose. That emptiness gave way to hope, and hope to determination. Regret and self-doubt gave way to motivation. Her memory followed him and pushed him, it lived in each patient he saw. Her death justified with each patient that went home. He kept that frayed piece of string with him in his pocket.