On the Transmigration of Souls
Each day the vision comes with unanswerable questions
Before us lies eternity; our souls
Are love, and a continual farewell.
An apparition? A ghost? A vision? A dream? A mental projection? Which is it, I wonder, each time I look around me and see my dead son standing or sitting near me. It happens several times a day, every day, and there is no apparent rhyme or reason for the occurrence. I will be at at my desk, working, when suddenly I will look at the chair across the room and there he is: Enzo sitting calmly, legs crossed, watching me in silence.
A few days ago, a couple who lost their daughter a year ago visited us, and at one moment I looked up and saw Enzo standing at the doorway to our living room, listening to the conversation about him and the lost girl. His expression was serious but calm, which it usually is, though sometimes he smiles. He is dressed the same way each time, in jeans and one of the colorful shirts he so loved. He is as he was the day he died — tall, slim, and curly haired — a young man about to make his mark on the world. Though he does not have the corporeal substance of the living, he is more than a spirit. He has form and color — much like the holograms one sees in films. He is present and yet translucent — there and not there.
He never speaks to me, which is painful, for I would love to hear his voice again.
I have contemplated the nature of the visions of my son since his death two months ago and what they may mean. I am aware that the logical answer is that what I see are projections of my own mind, perhaps refusing to let go of him or reincarnating him for a momentary visit. I also know that in some faiths, what I see could be Enzo himself in a spiritual form, come to comfort, console, or impart some important message. Because I am an atheist, someone might perhaps suggest that the apparitions are Enzo asking me to reconsider my disbelief in God. A clue to what they are may lie in what I feel when I see him: it is never fear or dread; rather, it is the awareness of a reunification of my son and me. It is a strange sensation: it is as if he and I had been apart since his birth in some way and now that he is dead we are being reunited. It is the opposite of birth: it is a reabsorption of him into me.
Reflecting on these moments with Enzo I recall the musical composition, On the Transmigration of Souls, by John Adams. The composer was approached by the New York Philharmonic in January of 2002 to create a musical memorial for the victims of 9/11 for a concert to be held on the first anniversary of the attacks. At first, Adams rejected the commission, believing that the wounds were too raw. Eventually, however, he agreed to write the work, through which he wished to create not the traditional musical requiem but what he terms a “memory space” where the listener can be alone with his emotions. He wanted a place, he has said, where “you can go and be alone with your thoughts” — a place where music and words create the “stimulus” for reflection, neither directing your emotions nor forcing a specific point of view. Adams also wanted his sonic edifice to have a sense of many generations co-existing within it, a feeling he likens to walking into an ancient cathedral and sensing all who have entered before us.
Over the twenty-five minutes of Adams’ somber music, we hear three sets of sounds. The first is a reading of the victims’ names recorded by friends and family, with each name followed by the word “missing.” There is also a mantra-like composition made from these same names, starting with the voice of a nine-year-old boy and ending with those of two middle-aged women, both mothers. Lastly, one hears the sounds of New York: traffic, people walking, distant voices of laughter or shouting, trucks, cars, sirens, steel doors shutting, brakes squealing. To listen to the piece is like walking into a great invisible hall, in which one can close one’s eyes and pay attention to the sounds of the day in which so many souls left their bodies unexpectedly and unwillingly.
The soul’s transformation is the essence of the title’s most evocative word, Adams notes:
“Transmigration” means “the movement from one place to another” or “the transition from one state of being to another.” It could apply to populations of people, to migrations of species, to changes of chemical composition, or to the passage of cells through a membrane. But in this case I mean it to imply the movement of the soul from one state to another. And I don’t just mean the transition from living to dead, but also the change that takes place within the souls of those that stay behind, of those who suffer pain and loss and then themselves come away from that experience transformed.
As the piece develops, one feels the migration of the dead as their names echo across the steel and concrete canyons of the city, carried along by the voices of the living, which are, notes Adams, “a mixture of hope and a slowly dimming acceptance of reality.”
Adams’ notion that upon death souls move from one state to another strikes me as apropos, and “transmigration” is the word that seems the explanation of what I am seeing and experiencing. The boy I see each day is the merging of some part of Enzo’s being with mine, the transmigration of the soul — in moving images and shadows — of a son who is no longer into the father who must carry it until his final day. Like two rivers that meet before reaching the sea, it is the union of two currents that must eventually be integrated into a greater whole. I can sense our unification in the moments he is here and sense also in him a wish to join me as much as I wish to join him. I confess I do not know what this transmigration means or what will happen when it is complete. I do know that it is real and that it changes me a little each day, bringing me closer to Enzo and yet farther from the day he left this world.
His visits last only a few moments, and he departs as silently as he arrived. When he is gone, I sometimes recall a different piece of music, The Unanswered Question, by another American composer, Charles Ives. This seven-minute work was one of the inspirations for Adams’ piece. In it, a trumpet plaintively asks a question six times, to which the woodwinds six times give a disquieting answer. The trumpet, however, is not satisfied with their increasingly emphatic replies and asks the question a seventh time. There is no seventh answer, however, and the composition ends with the orchestra’s strings fading into silence. Ives has noted that the unanswered query is “the perennial question of existence.” Why are we here? is a question with many answers, none of which, the trumpet tells us, ever really solves the mystery. Similarly, Why must we leave? has many answers, none of which really matter in the end. All we know is that we arrive and we depart, most after their life has run its course but a few as life is about to bloom.
As I write these lines, I see Enzo again. The transmigration of his soul continues today. As I accept his soul into mine, I wonder whether today is the last day of its journey and I shall not see him again. I wonder also whether the merging of our souls will take the rest of my life to run its course. Which is the better option? To see or not to see one’s beloved dead? I have no answer to that question either. I know only that for however long the transmigration of his soul takes, I will sit in Adams’ musical cathedral and contemplate the same question Ives posed. Like the lonely trumpet, I will ask it many times, knowing that it has no answer and that in the end all that will be left is a descent into memory. As for my boy, all I can do today is sit silently in his presence with tears in my eyes and welcome him home.