Author’s Note: This biographical portrait of my son, who was born on August 24, 1977, in Bloomington, Indiana, USA, and who died on March 1, 2003, in his native town, not yet twenty-six, was written during the forty days after his death, the forty symbolic days of observance that follow everyone’s death. Throughout those days I was unable to do anything else apart from thinking of him as I wrote, transcribing fragments from my intermittently kept diaries and trying to capture the fragile truth of memories which haunted me during this period and which, I knew, were inevitably going to be lost in the dusk of time. I did not count the days, but it so happened that on the fortieth I felt reconciled to my pain, almost serene in my sadness. The outcome is this reflection on his life, and also on that part of my life when I did my best to understand the enigma he embodied. I never did, but I gained a different insight, namely an understanding of the fact that he was, in his own way and in the way he continues to live in my memory, a gift. God’s gift? I cannot be sure of this, but his name, which is also mine, contains this divine echo coming from the depths of biblical etymology. A name is a sign, it has often been said—nomen est omen—but the omen is always indecipherable: it is a small mystery wrapped within a greater, much greater, in fact infinite, mystery.
I have written this piece for myself as a kind of spiritual exercise, but I do hope it may help others. This is what prompts me to offer it for publication. I wish to thank my wife, Uca, and my daughter, Irena, for reading the manuscript, adding memories and making useful suggestions.
1 “Anyone’s Death is a Great Tragedy”
Death is the beginning of biography, the beginning of any life story. The true beginning, revealing its meaning, or its lack of meaning, only in the end. M would have agreed. He would have enjoyed this notion as he enjoyed those contradictory combinations of words that amused him, those playful reversals of terms which to him sounded both absurd and natural, phrases such as “In the beginning is the end,” for instance. The deeper paradox in this would have eluded him, although he might have pondered a little and then burst out laughing and clapped his hands loudly two or three times, as he did whenever he was pleasantly surprised. The paradoxes of language delighted him spontaneously, they were games that made him happy—for their gratuitousness, if not for anything else.
From Ecclesiastes we know that life has no meaning, that nothing in life has any meaning, that “everything is meaningless.” This being so, even our search for God is meaningless, even God himself who, impenetrable, is above such human trifles. But if life does have an appearance of meaning—no matter how fragile, ephemeral or illusory—it can only be glimpsed at the end, when the story has unfolded and has exited time, when it has turned into pure, frozen past. This past itself is then embedded within the other past, the “phenomenal” past of our memory, the one which has a future, albeit possibly only a narrow strip of a future, occasionally lit by the shifting searchlight of the present. All this would have been too difficult for M to grasp or for me to explain to him. But time is ultimately unexplainable, it can only be intuited, as Saint Augustine justly observed in his Confessions. We know what time is, but cannot define it. Sometimes we are not even sure that it really exists.
M had his own sense of time which I myself failed to grasp, an understanding of time dominated perhaps by fear of the future, a future which he could not, or perhaps would not, envisage; he lived in the present, with a dim grasp of the past, which for him had only a few clear areas. He was without nostalgia, dreams for the future or daydreaming reveries. On the night of the wake in church, as I was standing with Uca next to his open coffin, I read a few passages from Ecclesiastes out loud: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun . . . There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.” “I can recognize M in this!” Uca exclaimed. His beliefs were indeed of this type, simple, generic, based on common sense, and as such universally acceptable, but they had nothing of the pessimism of Ecclesiastes, nothing of the drama and the sublime poetry of the biblical text. His implicit philosophy was that of a serene Ecclesiastes. He was at peace with himself, because to him, things could never have been—indeed, should never have been—any different from what they are.
Two days after M had suddenly stopped breathing in an epileptic seizure, I had the following imaginary dialogue with him: “Your death is a great tragedy for us.” “Anyone’s death is a great tragedy,” he replied. This was his way of thinking. Not his own death as an individual, but death generally, everyone’s death, was the great tragedy. But it was also a banal tragedy, like any other predictable event, no matter how terrible. And about such things—it was an old conviction of his—it was hardly worth talking. His answer had an underlying meaning—precisely because it was well above any personal contexts, because it had nothing to do with him, with us, because it was a known, if painful, truth, terrifying in a kind of abstract way, but above all, known—once and for all time. The underlying meaning, with a hint of the polemical, was this: “Let’s not talk about it, it’s yesterday’s news, what’s the point in going on about it.” (Undoubtedly, he himself would have been incapable of formulating a statement such as this, but his implicit intention was for me crystal-clear.)
Throughout his life, frequently repeated words and phrases annoyed and even angered him. To him, they were mere repetitions, empty and pointless words. He did not realize that banalities can serve, if not for communication, at least as “phatic” signals, as linguists call them, used as conventional signs of mutual recognition and good will, as social indicators that invite communication, if needed, the tacit understanding being that, in most cases, it is not needed. His aversion for the formulaic included even polite forms of address, but only when they were directed at him—to the point of not responding to “Good morning,” for instance, or responding in a brusque, irritated and bored manner, as if only to preempt a repetition. Or maybe it was because in the morning he was ill-disposed and morose—oh, not another day with its unfuture!—for in the evenings he responded to “Good night” and even said it himself several times—”Good night . . . good night,” again and again . . . as if to delay going to bed for as long as possible. He went even further occasionally and, on nights when we were tired and could hardly wait to go to sleep, he became talkative and sat on the edge of our bed asking questions and telling stories in his way—with many pauses, interruptions, searching for words—but all in a state of growing exaltation, as our eyelids drooped.
But there was something else in the subtext of this statement—”Anyone’s death is a tragedy”—that was also typical of his way of thinking. He sometimes liked ending a discussion with a generic, gnomic, incontestable statement such as this. Whenever we tried to make him understand the differences between himself and other children—or later, other teenagers or young adults—he would say: “All people are different.” It was perhaps his way of managing his difference, by assuming it to be a perfectly normal thing. People are as they are. Nobody can become somebody else. There was also a natural, untaught, amazing stoicism in his reply to my mental exclamation, as I imagined our conversation two days after his sudden death: “Anyone’s death is a great tragedy.” This was as much as saying: my own death is no big deal. It is a tragedy that does not matter. It is a great tragedy that signifies nothing. Perhaps it was some such truth that he was trying to communicate to me, with a certain serenity, in our imaginary dialogue. At the same time, he was also trying to comfort me, for he knew my pain. He had always been extremely sensitive to others’ pain. His own he would take as something absolutely natural. “All people are different” meant to him: “All people are normal; all people are as they are, as they should be.”
And yet . . . When I think of him, when I survey, in random order, memories triggered by one corner or another of the house we shared continuously for twenty-five years, his image, or rather his images at various ages, especially the more recent ones, come to my mind. I am reminded of his presence, of his awkward manner, his stumbling shuffle and his heavy step which made our wooden staircase creak in a way that left no doubt who was there. I am reminded of the way in which he called me, using the word “Mom” several times in the beginning, although he was aware he was addressing me, and only eventually resigning himself to “Dad.” (His mother was the one he always meant to call, from the depth of his being, with that primordial syllable in which the repeated labial “m” evokes the mother in most languages.) I am reminded of the way he talked to me with long pauses, searching for words that never came or came very slowly after lengthy and tormenting verbal shots in the dark which almost inevitably ended in frustration and renunciation (“Never mind”). Today, all of these appear to me not merely as symptoms of his condition, but also as external manifestations of his essential angelic quality or of his fundamental innocence, not reducible to the autism which doctors had diagnosed belatedly, when he was in elementary school. He came, it seemed, from another world, bearing a message that I could not decode, a mystery that I perceived only as a distant, rare and strange radiance that shone its little light upon us. Postmortem constructions? Perhaps. But this was the lesson I eventually learned from him—the gift of his almost imperceptible aura and the affection which he attracted like a magnet wherever he went and in which he and all those around him rejoiced.
I remember when I first heard the diagnosis—hit in my stupid pride, in the unpunished arrogance of my grandiose dreams for my son’s future, the parent’s pride and arrogance—I fantasized for a while about the two of us withdrawing from the world and leading a strict monastic life. Because I was not a believer, this was in effect a fantasy of double quasi-suicide, of a final retreat from the world, of permanent mortification, at least as far as I was concerned. It seemed to me that he, unlike me, could only benefit from the ritual, ordered life, after the chaos that human society appeared to be for him, with its tacit and complicated demands which he could not grasp. I was still a prey of demonic pride and of the shame of having begotten, late in life, a disabled child, whom I desperately loved and with whom I wanted to, but could not, identify. But it was also—thank God—the beginning of a long process of understanding, even though it was only understanding the fact that I could not understand. I had completely forgotten those fantasies of many years ago, but Uca reminded me of them. I had forgotten not only because I was now at peace with myself, but also mostly because, in the meantime, I had made so many other discoveries.
M was a being apart. One day Misty, a friend of Irena’s who helped M at the start of his work at the public library in Bloomington, asked him for an “autograph” in jest. With a smile, M wrote obligingly in his hesitant, labored hand: “Professor Matthew Calinescu.” Wherever did he get this idea of an academic title? Normal logic would suggest the following thought process: only famous people are asked for autographs, and his simple, anonymous name would not justify such honors. Could he have imagined that, for this one occasion, there was no harm in borrowing, also in jest, his father’s professorial title? Amused, Misty showed me the autograph and I—for what obscure reason?—suggested to M that he put the word “Professor” in quotation marks. He did so, saddened, or so he seemed to me, that I had failed to go along with the joke. But why had I? Why? Actually, that is precisely what he was: a professor, not of course a “university professor,” but a professor all the same, a shy, discreet, taciturn teacher of angelic wisdom and of the ineffable, giving gifts of mysterious peace—priceless gifts—to all those who came in contact with him.
At home, we would often witness his suffering and his all too human anger—whenever he did not find the right words to express himself or when we raised our voices and his over-sensitive hearing would perceive noises of an overwhelming, threatening, terrifying intensity. But elsewhere, the other half of his being, the true one, was a gentle, almost angelic presence under the twin sign of his visible helplessness and of his very special sense of humor which would unlock the gates of rigid social conventions, freeing or reviving secret kindnesses, forgotten naiveties, and long ago desiccated freshnesses. M was, unwittingly, unwillingly, a little maestro of the absurd, of a crystalline, childish, innocent kind of humor touched occasionally by the wing of poetry. Daniel Baron, his former mathematics teacher at Harmony Middle School, still remembered more than ten years later M’s short graduation speech—the most memorable in Baron’s whole career, he said. At the close of the last year of middle school, at the graduation ceremony, all the students had been invited to take the podium in the small grassy amphitheatre built in the school’s garden and to say a few words each. M was hesitant, intimidated by the audience of schoolmates, teachers and parents, but finally he braced himself and, in a tremulous but determined voice, gave the following speech, as reproduced by Daniel Baron after the funeral ceremony at a gathering at our home of all those who had been close to M in life: “I would like to thank my teachers, who taught me many things, I would like to thank my schoolmates, who have helped me and have been kind to me, I would like to thank the school building, where I’ve spent four years, I’d like to thank the classrooms and the hallways, the walls and the posters, the desks and the chairs, the gym, and the garden and the trees and the bushes and the grass . . . ” Daniel Baron concluded: “In fact, M taught us, his teachers—and even some members of staff who only knew him in passing—more than we ever taught him.”
2 Mater Dolorosa
I regard this portrait of M as a kind of “galaxy.” It starts with his death and is virtually boundless. I do not know how it could be covered within the confines of one volume, but it will have to come to an end. This will doubtless be an arbitrary end, like any other ending: It may come as a result of an accident, out of exhaustion, or because some passage or word will appear to me as a convenient, suggestive, symbolic conclusion. It may, however, end abruptly, in a moment devoid of any special significance. A galaxy of fragments, memories, reflections, anecdotes and reading notes (always connected to him), of older and newer diary entries written when he was still alive, comments on the margin of diary entries, comments on comments, in random order, generally going counterclockwise, but not necessarily so. The only certitude is the fact that I start with the end, but the beginning—what is the beginning?—I am certain I will never reach the true beginning. The only thing one can say about the beginning is that it is a mystery more profound than the end.
I found M sprawled out on the floor in the room where I had left him a few minutes earlier seated calmly on the settee and watching a TV program that had started at eight. It was now a quarter past eight and he had fallen silently off the settee and was now lying face down with a wet urine stain on his denim-clad right thigh. He had had an epileptic fit, I realized immediately, but without the convulsions which normally I would have heard, without the noisy thrashing of feet like a horse’s trot, without the loud grunting that could continue for minutes, and without the heavy, sonorous breathing which never failed to thrust a knife through my heart. I rushed to switch the TV off and then dashed to roll him on his back. I struggled with his inert weight and I realized he was not breathing. I put my lips on his hot but lifeless lips and I clumsily attempted to resuscitate him for a few seconds. It was like a strange kiss, intense and desperate, as I tried to suck air out of his chest and then fill it with air from my lungs with a powerful, yet ultimately impotent out-breath. I finally called his mother who was upstairs talking on the phone to Irena, congratulating her on her thirty-eighth birthday, that first of March. M was more than twelve years younger than his sister.
“M has stopped breathing,” I screamed, and she immediately interrupted her long-distance call to Irena, in Los Angeles. “M is unwell, I’ll call you back later.” I dialled 911 and the ambulance arrived, sirens wailing, within five or six minutes. Resuscitation attempts at the scene produced no results, but his heart continued to beat, ever more slowly, faint and remote. At the hospital, the doctor on duty told us, after about twenty minutes, that he was dead, although his heart was still beating, very faintly, as often happens after cerebral death: there was nothing else they could do for him. He offered condolences with conventional gravity and a handshake (“He was so young . . . “) and allowed us to go and see him.
M was lying in a dimly lit room on a hospital bed, with eyes closed and hands on his chest, still warm as I kissed his forehead. Uca kissed his forehead and cheeks several times, and stroked his hair, crying. “If he were alive, he wouldn’t let me kiss him,” she said calmly, gently. (It was true, M disliked physical contact, he brusquely rejected kisses, embraces, and recoiled tensely even if touched). “He’s still warm,” Uca kept telling me, as the tears streamed down her face. Rigor mortis had not yet set in, as I lifted his hand to kiss it, humble and hopeless in the face of the mystery that was already wrapping him up in its irreversible chill. I kept bursting into tears, then wiping them off, I could not believe it. A woman doctor or nurse asked whether we wanted to call a priest. It was not yet ten in the evening, so I immediately phoned Father Athanasius Wilson, our Eastern Orthodox priest, who arrived soon (I had no sense of time: when you have nothing left to wait for, time simply evaporates). “This is not M,” he said, as he entered the room, “it is only his body, his mortal clothing. His soul has left, it is no longer here.” But Uca was denying it, murmuring through her suppressed sobs: “No, this is my M, my M, my only, only M.” Mater dolorosa. In those moments, without knowing it, Uca was participating in a mystical archetype: The Mother, having lost her son in his prime, overwhelmed by a pain which is ineffably of the same nature as the pain of the Mother of Jesus. Father Athanasius said a prayer for M. He told us that M had confessed and taken holy communion two or three weeks earlier. In his own reserved, shy way, M was a believer, he had natural faith, although lately he had been to church more rarely because, he said, “they talk too much of death there.” We went to a small Antiochian Orthodox church in Bloomington, as cosmopolitan as it was small, a place where Eastern Europe and the Middle East met America, with members of Greek, Russian, Ukrainian, and Romanian origin, alongside with Armenians and Lebanese Christians, but also attended by young Americans, many of them students, converted to Orthodoxy. Recently, M had been reluctant to talk about death. When he was a child, he often asked me about death. Later, when he “knew”—perhaps more than we did?—he was keen to leave the subject alone. Maybe he associated the idea of death with his increasingly frequent and devastating epileptic seizures. “Anyone’s death is a great tragedy,” he told me in our imaginary dialogue of two or three days ago. His own individual death did not matter, but the thought of death troubled him considerably. A few years before, when he had recovered after a particularly violent fit and had calmed down, I asked him in the evening over supper: “Tell me, what do you think, is life good or bad?” “This is a very difficult question,” he replied and remained silent. That silence stayed with me for a long time and it is still there.
The translator gratefully acknowledges the collaboration of Paul Bembridge.
© Matei Călinescu. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2004 by Angela Jianu. All rights reserved.