The Silver Door and the Little Prince
In my last moments with Enzo I made him a promise I shall always keep in my heart.
“Behind all seen things lies something vaster; everything is but a path, a portal or a window opening on something other than itself.”
August 1st was the three-month anniversary of Enzo’s death, and I mark that moment with an essay I was unable to write until now. Part one contains descriptions some readers may find upsetting, so you are therefore welcome to skip forward to part two. —CA
On the morning after the funeral of Enzo, the sun shone over Bethesda, and our small town awoke to the golden light and easy warmth of a lovely summer day. It was 8:30am when I arrived at his mother’s house to pick her up for our final trip to the funeral home where he awaited the last ritual that would mark his passing from this world to the next.
We drove in silence, each contemplating what was about to occur. As I look back on that morning, I think I must have been moving robotically, still in a state of disbelief at the task that lay before me yet propelled by the duty we had to our late son. It was not a long drive, and soon we parked the car across the street from the building where Enzo’s body lay. I turned off the engine, took a deep breath, then asked his mom if she was ready.
“Yes,” she answered softly, as she looked first at me and then down at her clasped hands.
“OK,” I replied. “Let’s go do what we have to do.”
I stepped out of the car, walked around to the passenger side, and helped her step out of the vehicle. We crossed the street and walked up to the building’s side entrance, where a man saw us approaching and opened the door. I had been told that the crematorium’s oven, located in a structure behind the main building, needed about twenty minutes to warm up and that it would not be lit until we arrived in order to give us a few last moments with Enzo. I knew, therefore, that, as we stepped into the red brick building, somewhere near me the machine that would dispose of my son’s remains was at that very moment being awakened for its horrific purpose.
We were taken into a sitting area just outside the room that contained Enzo’s remains. In it were a few simple chairs arrayed around a coffee table on which lay pamphlets on coping with grief and loss. Our immediate family had been there before, on the day prior to the funeral, to say our farewells, and, as on that day, I went into the viewing room first. I stepped in quietly and closed the door behind me. I stood about ten feet from Enzo’s brown wooden coffin, which lay half-open, and I tried to process the fact that this would be the last moment I would ever see him. That thought checked me where I stood, and at first I was unable to take a step forward.
Eventually, I walked slowly toward the coffin that I had selected for him the day after his death, during that first twenty-four hours when I operated on autopilot, acting without much comprehension of what was happening and simply completing each task that was asked of me. As I approached Enzo, I contemplated the half-open coffin lid that covered him from the waist up. From the bottom edge of the closed portion, a cream-colored silk curtain dropped and landed on his waist. He wore a pair of shorts, next to which lay his hands, visible only from the bottom of his wrists. His legs were bare, and his feet were covered by red socks emblazoned with the University of Maryland logo. I walked to the coffin and silently looked at his legs. That I could not gaze upon his face tore my heart to pieces. Wanting so much to see everything, I could not help but wonder in terror at what lay beneath that closed lid that we were forbidden to open.
After staring at him for a few minutes, I reached down and touched his hands and legs, shuddering at the feel of his cold skin, which I caressed as if he had been alive, trying to capture some sense of the physical body I had known. I stared for what seemed an eternity, longing for a twitch—a movement of any kind—which, of course, would never come. I kissed his hands and feet, letting the tears flow. I stood, touched Enzo’s left hand, and spoke to him for the last time: “Goodbye, my son,” I said aloud. “I will miss and love you forever.”
When it was time to leave, I bent forward—I don’t know why—and kissed his feet one last time, after which I walked quietly from the room.
After me came his mother who said her own farewells in private. When she finished, I re-entered the room, and we said one final goodbye together as father and mother. We then told the attendant who waited outside that we were ready. In a moment, he and a colleague entered Enzo’s room. They lowered the bottom half of the lid onto the coffin, which had been lying on a movable platform. Together, the four of us pushed the coffin into a small elevator and descended to the lower level that led to the back lot of the building. We then crossed a small concrete courtyard and waited as a large metal door opened.
We were now inside the crematorium. I had expected to be taken to a viewing room, where we would watch the final process unfold from a distance. Instead, we found ourselves in front of a large metallic silver-colored door. Next to it were two large buttons, one red and one green. As we straightened up Enzo’s coffin at the edge of the closed gate, I could hear the oven working behind it. One of the men then addressed us: “When I press the green button, the door will rise open. We will then move the coffin inside the oven. When you are ready, you can press the red button and the door will start to lower. When it closes completely, the door will lock, and the process will begin.”
In a moment, he asked us whether we were ready. When we nodded, he pressed the green button. As soon as the door began to open, I could sense the full fury of the oven, now heated and ready to do its job. When the door was fully raised, we quietly pushed the coffin forward until it was fully inside the oven, the heat of which radiated onto my face, arms, and hands. The workers stepped back and looked at us in silence. I glanced at Enzo’s mom to make sure she was okay, and she looked back at me with a look that told me it was time for him to go. Together, we stepped forward and pressed the red button. The door lowered slowly, emitting a loud metallic sound, and the instant it closed I heard the oven ferociously roar to life. I knew then that I was listening to the incineration of my first-born son a few inches from where I was. I shall never forget the sound, and there are nights when I wake up, see the silver door in the darkness, and hear again the awful sound of the flames consuming what remained of Enzo’s body.
I wanted to switch places with Enzo. I wanted to scream and fall to the ground. I wanted to be anywhere on Earth but this spot. I stood motionless, staring silently at the silver door that pulsed as the waves of heat radiated against it. We all stood, until I finally put my hand on his mother’s shoulder and suggested that it was time to go, for the cremation would take some time. We returned to the funeral home to say our farewells to the staff.
Our thanks completed, Enzo’s mother and I left our boy, whose remains were to be placed in a small wooden box I would collect the next day. So it was that, with our final duty to our son completed, we returned home to start the life that awaited us without him.
On the day before Enzo’s cremation, Enzo’s mom and I had been told that we could each place one small personal item in the coffin with him. It could be anything, so long as it was not made of metal. It is not easy to consider everything that connects you to a child and to select from eighteen years of life together one object that symbolizes everything the child was as well as our own feelings about his life and loss. I considered many possibilities—items of clothing that he liked to wear, gifts he had given me over the years, and mementos of our time together. I struggled with the decision. After all, what single item can say everything one would want to say in a final farewell to any loved one, especially to a lost child? It was a profound question that, when I had contemplated it exhaustively, had for me only one possible answer.
On that sunny Friday morning, before leaving Enzo’s side for the last time, I gently placed an old copy of Le Petit Prince next to his body. It was one of the first serious works of literature Enzo had read at Lycée Rochambeau, the French school he attended for fifteen years. He kept a copy of it in his room all of his life. When he was six I hung a model of a French bi-plane on the ceiling above his bed, for the little book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry tells the story of an aviator who crashes deep in the Sahara dessert. There, he soon meets a small boy—a prince, it so happens—from a small planet who is visiting Earth on his travels throughout the galaxy. Sadly, the boy had met only grown-ups on his trip, all of whom were marked by vanity and delusions. For several days, the little prince tells the aviator the story of his lonely life and of his one true love, a red rose that anxiously awaits his return. One day, a wandering snake tells the prince that its bite can return him to his home planet. The prince, noting the aviator’s sadness at hearing that the prince plans to depart from this world, asks his new friend not to grieve and warns him that if the aviator sees the prince’s body motionless after the bite, it is only because the human body is too heavy to make the long trip back home and so must be left behind. The next morning, the aviator discovers that the prince is indeed gone and leaves the desert, regretting that the little prince’s time on Earth had been far too short.
Because the little prince was a kind and generous soul, before leaving the aviator’s side, he consoled the man who had come to love him with a simple promise:
“At night you will look up at the stars. Where I live, everything is so small that I cannot show you where my star is to be found. It is better, like that. My star will just be one of the stars for you. And so you will love to watch all the stars in the heavens... they will all be your friends. And, besides, I am going to make you a present...”
He laughed again.
“Ah, little prince, dear little prince! I love to hear that laughter!”
“That is my present. Just that. It will be as it was when we drank the water...”
“What are you trying to say?”
“All men have the stars,” he answered, “but they are not the same things for different people. For some, who are travelers, the stars are guides. For others they are no more than little lights in the sky. For others, who are scholars, they are problems. For my businessman they were wealth. But all these stars are silent. You—you alone—will have the stars as no one else has them—.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night... You—only you—will have stars that can laugh!”
And he laughed again.
“And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me. You will always be my friend. You will want to laugh with me. And you will sometimes open your window…,for that pleasure..., and your friends will be properly astonished to see you laughing as you look up at the sky! Then you will say to them, ‘Yes, the stars always make me laugh!’ And they will think you are crazy. It will be a very shabby trick that I shall have played on you.”
And he laughed again. “It will be as if, in place of the stars, I had given you a great number of little bells that knew how to laugh.”
In the little book I left with Enzo on our final morning together, I placed a photo of us walking through the woods, and in the book itself I wrote my last words to him, knowing that, like the aviator, I would wake up tomorrow and my beloved son and friend would be gone.
“Goodbye my little prince,” I wrote. “Leave all of us grown-ups behind to the silly vanities you will never know. Return to the rose that waits for you. I promise with all my heart that I will always cherish the stars you gave me and to laugh with them whenever I look up and see them sparkling in the night’s endless sky. Love, Dad.”
On top of the inscription, I drew a little star. I like to think that it shined in the darkness and pulsed gently with the force of our love for him, and that, as the flames drew close, it became a glittering silver door for him to step through into the vastness of infinity.