Persuasion in death and life
A meditation on the death a young poet
vita enim mortuorum in memoria est posita vivorum
“For the life of the dead has been placed in the memory of the living.”
—Marcus Tullius Cicero, Philippic 9.10
It is an ancient belief that a parent who loses a child — especially a young one — undergoes one of the most heart-breaking experiences a human being can suffer. As adults we may from time to time contemplate our own mortality, but as parents we unfailingly shun the thought of the death of any of our children, because the mere contemplation of such a misfortune causes us a harrowing pain. As parents, we see in our children our memories and dreams, for they are at once the most cherished part of our past and the most hopeful part of our future. To lose a child is to lose the better part of whatever life remains for us on this earth.
At 4:10 pm on June 1st, my older son Enzo — who had just completed his first year of journalism school at the University of Maryland — was killed when he fell off his bicycle and was struck by an oncoming vehicle. From what we know so far, he died instantly, and in that blink of an eye his life and the future I had visualized for him ceased to exist.
Twenty-seven days have passed since that afternoon, yet that moment at 4:10 pm remains fixed in my consciousness. By the time I arrived at the accident scene, his remains had been removed. Because of the damage from his injuries, I was never allowed to see Enzo's face again, so the last image I have of him is from when we had lunch together a few days earlier. The last face I remember is one glowing with joy, as we laughed together and spoke about our plans for the summer. This absence of a final look at him without life leaves me, at times, doubting that he is really gone. Perhaps a psychologist would call my reaction a denial, but I do not agree that denial is what I experience. At no moment do I deny that he is dead, yet the full comprehension of what that death signifies remains beyond my capacity to grasp. I assume it will come with time, but for now there exists within my mind a deep and restless uneasiness about what it is that we who loved him have lost.
A few days ago, someone asked me how I was faring. I explained that my day is like being in an endless rolling field, sweating as I try to pull a plow with all my force. Suddenly and without warning, a tornado appears and lifts me into a darkened sky. Trapped within its whirling force, images swirl around me: the day we took him home from the hospital after he was born, his fifth birthday party, his legs in a half-closed coffin, his first time driving, the final moment his mother and I shared with him in the crematorium. Helpless, I float in the storm, surrounded by images fixed and fluid, photos and movies playing silently before me until the moment when the tornado suddenly stops. Then, without warning, I am dropped back to earth, where I return to work my plow and await the dark storm’s return.
I do not know whether this endless field signifies my future, but I know it is my present. Perhaps what I place into the earth are my old dreams and hopes for my son. Perhaps only when they are fully buried, nourished by sun and rain, will new hopes or dreams grow again. Only time will provide an answer to that question, so for now I look to the consolation of words old and new to survive the painful metamorphosis I must complete. I am an atheist, so my old words are those of Plato, who reminds me that death should be borne with sadness and also with the understanding that the world spares no one his share of sorrows. My words are those of Aristotle, the subject of the book I am writing, who reminds me that happiness is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue; thus, happiness is possible even in the midst of the most profound grief. Mostly, however, the words that guide me are those of Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, two Stoics, who believed that great sorrow may be allowed to enter our souls, but it must never take command.
As for new words, there I look to those of my own son. During the past holidays Enzo told me that he had written poetry since starting college and that he often went to Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C. on open mike night to read what he wrote. I asked him to send me his poems so that we could read and study them together, and I could help him understand the art he now wished to learn. Together we read Homer, Shakespeare, and Pope. But we also read the poets of his beloved Argentina (his mother’s native land), as well as those of France, Africa, and China. Each poet, I told Enzo, can teach us something about what it means to compose poetry, a sacred art since the dawn of civilization. Poets sing our songs. They celebrate our victories. They immortalize our heroes. They cry our tears and give us words to express our sorrows. Most of all, though, poets give us peace. By finding the right words when we cannot, they let our souls call out to humanity, cry out to a god, or whisper to the universe itself.
Below is the last poem Enzo sent me before his death. To me, it is his first and final real poem. His are the simple words of a new poet, a young man still learning to turn his world and feelings into words. As you will see, it is a poem about a valley. Perhaps one day with enough toil and tears my anguished barren field will transform into his lush and tranquil valley. This thought is for now a fancy, but maybe, in time, I can persuade myself to make it my dream.
At dawn, the bright sun shines upon the meadow. Blades of grass, gleaming in gold, move together lightly, as a wave of wind passes by.
Birds in the distance sing; they do not cry.
The world is reborn, as it is every day.
Free of sin, the world is pure at this moment.
The trees still stand.
The soil embraces the earth.
The pond lies still.
As a golden sun rises, it gazes beyond the edges of the meadow. For a moment, the valley breathes and holds the air of a new day for as long as it can.
—Enzo Marcel Alvarenga (2003-2022)