It’s a commonly stated trope among medical students that medical school doesn’t leave adequate time for real life. That’s not the only thing it doesn’t leave time for.
So I’d like to write, for a few words, on the human language most attuned to capturing emotion, music. At times like these, dirges and sad songs are… I suppose popular isn’t the word, but you know what I mean. But to me, there is something inadequate about these. A funerary song, I feel, ought to have three traits. First, it ought to be beautiful. In fact, it ought to be heartbreakingly so. These events are pains we feel so acutely and so deeply that it’s nonsensical that we torture ourselves further with dragging rhythms and clashing keys. In your deepest sadness, death needs a foil, a counterpoint, not a co-conspirator. Second, it ought to be striking, like cold air coming out of the warm, like a hand hitting you across the face. Managing a death can happen with procedural detachment—and we lose the marker in our minds for what the moment was when it all changed. We go on for a while on our old habits. In some ways, a single song, sung just once, can help us—it can give us a point to go back to, a firm mental justification for when it was time to do things a new way. And last, perhaps most subjective and most difficult, but I will argue, most importantly, it must be partner with the silence that follows it. When the last note rings, the moment after should naturally be silence—a moment for tears to well up and lumps to form in throats, because at that moment, and only then, can we experience catharsis and understand death as it is.
Death is not an event. It is the cessation of events. It is the moment that the instrument in a great orchestra stills. Of all the kinds of silence, it is the only truly human one. It is not the silence we interrupt by living, the great vast soundlessness of the universe, that came before us and will come after us, the sound not only of nothing to hear but nobody to hear. It is the silence that comes after a noise— the silence of many recognizing that there is nothing to hear. It leaves a faint tingle on the ears, and a tiny longing, as a taste of wine fading on the tongue. And it is brought out, and appreciated, in the moment of mourning. We mourn as a way of directing all the instruments, for just a second, to pause, so that we can hear the silence after the noise. We step away, put down our tasks of life, to see the space where something was.
The silence after the sound is fleeting. It can be missed, and we know it, for we can be tempted to miss it on purpose—to let it blend and fade in the background. But we rob ourselves, in doing so, of a proper ending. The funeral can be postponed, but the moment happens just once. Later you may reflect on it, but you are only, then, remembering the brief moment when there was a silence after the noise. It will not come again. The next night, or in a year, the orchestra will be playing and the silence will still be there, but then it will be normal, inseparable from the silence of the things that could be or might be or simply aren’t. You cannot sip the wine now and know, in every vivid detail, how its taste fades, in six months. It is passed around just once.
I could tell you a lot about Miranda. She was beautiful—I had forgotten how beautiful until I saw an old picture. She was distinguished by a yellow stripe down half of her nose, and golden eyes, and an imperious manner that seemed to explain everything the Egyptians thought about cats. She was, more than anything, self-possessed, and had a stronger personality than most cats (I weigh my words carefully). Memories pass by as I type this—the blanket she used to nurse on when she was just a kitten, which was faux fur and must have felt like her mother. The way she once rode ceiling fans and hunted wasps and moths, back when we were, she, my brother, and I, all young. Her stubbornness, and her insistence on getting her own way, which never left her. The wicked back-hand she developed after being declawed, which could knock the boy cats three feet. Her golden years, spent sleeping in strongly-contested patches of sun and watching birds flit by the window with great interest. The respiratory problems that insidiously developed in those years, and the resulting heart problems that we thought would be her death sentence. But we moved, and things changed, and Miranda’s intense will seemed to keep her going. And though other parts of the orchestra fell out of tune, sometimes, in defiance of all odds, she kept playing. Some part of us, foolishly and hopefully, dreamed it might be a great while longer.
But discord crept in. A hard nodule of cancer in her stomach grew while we were focusing on her improving breathing. We never knew, until it was also in her liver, until she was wasting bit-by-bit in front of us… and by then, there was nothing we COULD do. I console myself, now, that the silence that pains us might be a relief to a musician who can no longer play in time and on tune. At some point, will as the music directors and other members of the orchestra might, there is no playing on. Then the silence after the sound is a cessation of disharmony, a relieving of clashing cords, or at least of maddening effort in preventing them. Silence is funny—it’s defined by what it interrupts.
Tonight, a princess, but a very old princess, has died. Though she was ever young at heart, and full of vinegar (in point of fact, a brat, if a loveable brat, to her last breath)—she held a tired, thin instrument, strings fraying and brass faded, soundbox crumbling even as she gamely played on. We could have delayed its disintegration perhaps two weeks— if we put, as orchestral directors sometimes do, the musician through Hell. But we are not that kind of director. So instead, tonight, she has put it down and walked off the stage. And we, her family, take a moment to hear the fading, thin note left behind in her wake, the last string of a melody we’ve known for a long time, become accustomed to, and will never hear again. And as it echoes I reflect on many things, but only one seems to resonate—that I have seen the passing of hunters and companions and friends, but only now do I know that we truly lost royalty. For as stupid as it sounds, she acted the part, and not just to the extent that all cats do, but through and through. It was who she was. You will never get to see what I meant, for which I am deeply sorry. It is too late. Really it was too late some time ago, as the decrescendo came, as the signs of the end came in.
I am writing this as I wait out the traffic of rush-hour in an empty classroom. The sunlight is fading behind the mountains, trickling through spacious windows onto modern architecture. There are learning objectives I’m behind on. There are things to do in lab. A test is coming. My own part is busy, staccato, overwhelming. But here, I must pause. For as I listen, the last note rings, and I know that a song has ended.
Goodbye, princess. ‘Til we meet again.