After our mother died, the nurses at the hospital gave my brother Chris a small bundle in a plastic bag. It contained her few clothes, nightgowns, toiletries, her pink quilted bed-jacket. This was by no means all she owned, to be sure, but it was all she had at the end.
Chris put them in the garden shed, unable to open the bundle.
On my visit home a year or so later, he asked me to go through our mother’s things and decide what to do with them. He could not bear to be the one to bury the last of her, he said.
I took the bundle, opened it, and looked at the pathetic lump of clothing. It was unmistakably Mother’s, and I put my head down and burrowed my face into her nightgown. It smelled of her! My mother’s odor, not a very pleasant fragrance at that stage of her life, but nevertheless absolutely her own, lingered in the lingerie. Grief engulfed me, and again I buried myself in my mother’s smell, rolled the clothing round my head, inhaling her. It was my last experience of her, just as her scent was my first knowledge of her, when I was newborn.
“What is smell?” I asked my husband. How could a person’s particular fragrance survive them for over a year? Not the smell of death, but the same smell she had when alive.
John, a scientist, said, “It’s molecules; we are all made of molecules, and the molecules of odor pick up each person’s unique markings, at least for a time. Then they dissipate, and regroup.”
He told me that each cup of water in the ocean contains molecules that once made up
That is a wonderful thought, and one explanation of immortality. Of immortality through the cycling of nature, anyway. It was a special moment, when we talked quietly about these molecules, after dinner on the patio. It was a warm Phoenix night in March, that time of year when the air is warm; it caresses you lightly, like a breath. Perfect, so comfortable, like being rafted on your mother’s breast as you drift gently to sleep after taking your fill of her, and so it seemed appropriate that we were talking of my mother. That night, thinking about the dead, I felt supported by the living, all the life that twittered and buzzed and emanated its individuality around us; not only human beings, but the plants and trees, as the roses we had put in that day, already leaning against the trellises with relief, felt supported by my efforts to make them comfortable.
My mother died of Alzheimer’s. Not only did her body decay, but her mind collapsed. When she finally died, after ten years of dementia had corroded her brain, there was not much recognizable personality left. It was as if the grave had opened for her, early. But something remained, nonetheless, that reflected my mother’s sweetness.
What was that ineffable uniqueness? Apart, that is, from molecules which float and reassemble?
The universe is vast and mysterious. The strange thing is, the more humans discover about the physical universe, the more likely it seems that life extends far beyond our little planet. We’ve already learned, thanks to Einstein, that mass and time are not constants. Why should existence be defined by a presence we humans can see, touch and smell?
As a young person, I sometimes felt guilty about taking up space on earth. So much is trumpeted about mankind’s gobbling of the planet’s natural resources, the extinction of species and the possible destruction of life by the nuclear bomb. So it felt like a miracle when I read about bacteria deep in the oceans, which not only eat, but thrive on sewage. But even my understanding of that reflected a twentieth century squeamishness- the association of waste with water, flushing it out of sight. Somehow I put out of my mind the fact that up until the invention of the automobile, city streets reeked of horse manure. It became invaluable fertilizer. Only when manure stopped being used in such quantities on crops did artificial soil amendments became an industry. In the natural world, pollution becomes decay becomes the food of bacteria and eventually becomes new life. On recognizing this, I felt the same pleasure I experienced in school when we learned about photosynthesis. The efficiency and economy of nature, its recycling capabilities, satisfied my thrifty mind. We may destroy ourselves, but not nature, which has an infinite capacity to change.
Thus the question of immortality is for me, partly a matter of economy. If nature recycles endlessly, morphing in the process, so that in each generation there is a change, but nevertheless the basic processes remain the same, it seems to me that the question of the survival of the soul, however we define it, must also be some kind of perpetual recycling. The Asian religions stress reincarnation. Daoism, that ancient belief that all things in the universe are interconnected and should be in virtuous harmony, is a more palatable version of the same idea.
My brother Andrew, who died recently, was a lover of nature, much more interested in the Dao than in the Dow. Perhaps he, transformed, understood the rightness of his final resting place.
“Last week we scattered Andrew’s ashes on Black Mountain – quite high up,” his wife wrote to me. “We went along a rough track round the mountain – wonderful scenery all the way, beautiful trees and flowers, birds flying and calling and some amazing insects. Andrew would have loved it. The silence up there was so strong – despite a far off traffic hum.”
The hum of traffic. In the everyday world a nuisance, and yet above it, a sound of comfort and quiet pleasure. Perhaps that is what it is, the universe – a vibrant throb, a beating heart that never, ever, stops. Still, that’s not quite satisfying. An image of a sensate heart without a brain to go with it. It insults our collective ego. We think, therefore we are. Furthermore, a belief in the future – in progress in the material world, or in reincarnation or simply an afterlife, for the religious – is at the core of all our strivings. It is the only way we can cope with the thought of our utter destruction. That is, not to believe in it.
I learned, as my mother slowly died, not to confuse the ego with the soul. The indefinable essence of a person is what we imagine will survive, I suppose, if we fantasize about life after death. I was surprised by the remains of my mother’s odor, a year after she died. But that was a physical remnant of a once beautiful, intelligent and loving woman. Her self had scattered.
What she taught me is a more lasting legacy.
Miraculously, the human being’s capacity for thought means an individual’s consciousness can be transformed into a tradition that will stick around until it, too, is atomized into a new form. Maybe we should be thinking about immortality from this more modest goal, of being part of a chain far larger than the individual. We are immortalized in our genes, but for most people this is not enough, assuming even that we’ve produced natural children. My body will decay, my genes will pass on, but so what? It is the same even for the lizard.
Unlike lizards, humans crave a legacy. For us, it is our civilization that we find imperative to transmit to future generations. Even the idea of civilization is a conundrum, though, considering that we remain so ignorant of ways of life different from our own, often so outright hostile to them. We can be fascinated by ancient peoples, enthralled by a vision of Cleopatra floating down the Nile on a golden barge, but remain threatened by cultures that exist alongside of us, espousing different values.
Our culture, this civilization that enables me to put my particular thoughts on the internet for all to see, is perhaps the most egotistical culture that ever existed. Still, even as we revel in its possibilities, it’s ironic that it is all so temporary.
The internet connects us through space and time, invisibly. We write and read more than ever before, and one has to hope that eventually this will lead to more intercultural understanding. But with the ineffable musings of email, thoughts can disappear with the delete button. In the future, unless some descendants of ours master the ancient technology required to turn on the computer or the smart phone, these written communications will disappear just like the spoken word. Alphanumeric as they may be, twittering and texting are so very ephemeral. Will they last any longer than a fragrance that has been cooped up in a bundle in a bag in a shed, which when opened, drifts out the window, dissipating into the atmosphere?
Maybe not. But something will remain of our civilization, as we move on in history, talking, arguing, warring, destroying, rebuilding, as busy as little microbes. Human thought survives the ages in literacy. But even before some ancient genius scratched a hieroglyph on a rock to get it all down so it would not be forgotten, there was science, music, and art. Representations of a culture, made by an individual.
As we sat there on the patio, I kept thinking of Cleopatra. I was after all, apparently breathing the same recycled oxygenated air she breathed. How do we know of Cleopatra? We know about her because someone wrote about her.
History proves that we lived. Painting and literature tell stories of the time in which we lived. Architecture, which becomes archeology, tells us how we lived. And music repeats the rhythm of hooves crashing through the forest, the hum of a lullaby, the ticking of the heartbeat and the metronomic tides. All that sound tied to emotion and then abstracted again in musical composition.
It’s the idea we want to commemorate. Culture is the ultimate representation of the ego. I was here. This is what I saw in my time. It’s our proof that we lived. However temporary, or proven inaccurate in the long sweep of history, ideas survive. They are our individual signature. They have been transmuted from eyes that saw, ears that heard, noses and tongues that smelled and tasted. These representations of reality are invisible, odorless, intangible. But, transformed into a book, a painting, a building or an instrument, their power blurs the distinction between what was experienced in the past and the present, between the living and the dead. They drag the disintegrated body back into the room. The electric circuitry that once fired those brains now sparks our own, urging us to create. Learn, copy, adapt, the minds of the past say; whatever you do will be original. I lived on earth once, they say, and this is what it’s all about. I matter and you matter and now we are no longer solid matter we are still material. The molecules change yet remain, nonetheless.
It is said that Cleopatra filled her room with rose petals when she welcomed Mark Anthony. I thought of that when I caressed the roses I planted, that evening on the patio.
The smell of a rose, so fragrant, so short-lived. Yet so eternal.
From the compost a rose will arise.
Margaret Spence’s article, The Dog Catcher of Jabiru, appeared in the November 2014 issue of About Place Journal. She writes fiction, until distracted by a thought that makes its way into an essay. She lives in Phoenix. Her blog is at www.margaretannspence.com