John McAndrew

Thanks for Coming

In environment, Thoughts on July 16, 2011 at 8:27 AM

My father had two prostate surgeries when he was in his mid 70‘s. After the second one he contracted something called Guillain Barre Syndrome. It caused a paralysis that began in his hands and feet and quickly, within days, spread to his cardiovascular system. After weeks in Intensive Care, he beat it. He was rarely ill. He battled phlebitis and had the occasional flu, but that was it. He was 77, but healthy enough to beat Guillain Barre.

He was released from Intensive Care, and died three or four days later of pneumonia, which had set in while he had a tube down his throat, helping him to breathe, for 8 weeks.

I thought he was coming home. During our last visit, the night before he died, I was surprised to find that he was having difficulty talking. When he said something I couldn’t understand, I suggested that he write it down, but he shook his head no. I figured that, whatever it was, it could be dealt with when he finally came home. Since we couldn’t really talk, I cut our visit short and left. I had no idea he was dying. But for some reason, acting completely out of character for our relationship, before leaving, I leaned over and kissed his forehead and told him I loved him. Lucky: it was the last time I saw him alive. I thought we’d have a lot longer to sort things out.

Would it have been better if I had known? Maybe not. I could not have said goodbye better than I did. We might have had a longer conversation and said more deliberate goodbyes, maybe cleared the air a bit.

But here’s the thing: regardless of whether I had known, I’d have felt, and been, helpless to make a difference. I think the essence of grief may be the powerlessness. We develop a passionate desire to alter destiny, and we have utterly no ability to do so.

It’s important for people who are dying to know that they are loved, to receive the last little gestures their family and friends have to give. At least, I think it’s important to the dying, but maybe not. Maybe those gestures are only important to those of us left behind.  Little expressions of love in the face of death feel sacramental to me. They don’t turn back death, but they say, in effect, “Your life has had value to me. I will miss you.” They also say, “I’m showing up. I’m here, and I’m doing what I can, even though I suspect – I know – that it isn’t enough.”

Knowing that my friends would someday be going through what I was going through, I determined to pay attention to what people said or did at Dad’s funeral when they offered condolences. Here is what I learned.

Nothing but time can touch something as genuine as grief. But that’s okay. Because here’s the other thing I learned.

What mattered was that people showed up. One grade school friend, Tom Price, showed up to offer condolences, though we had not seen each other for years. I cried in my pastor’s arms when he showed up. Many of Dad’s colleagues from work or the Elks Club showed up, including my grade school math teacher who knew Dad from the Elks. I don’t remember what any of them said. What mattered, I discovered, was that they were there. It’s not easy to show up when you can’t make the difference we’d like to make. We come face to face with those we can’t help, when they most need help. We might as well be greeted with, “Well, if you can’t DO anything, why did you come?” Yet thirty years on, I remember many of those who came to pay their respects and offer condolences, and am grateful. They couldn’t bring Dad back, but damned if they didn’t make a difference in the face of his death. I was powerless to change my father’s fate. They were powerless to change my grief. But we all did the best we could, even if it wasn’t as much as we wanted.

* * * * * * * * *

Grief and powerlessness are parts, not only of the deaths of parents, children or loved ones, but also of things like a frustrated love affair or plan for college or career – anything, basically, on which we have fixed a passionate hope or expectation that becomes frustrated. . .

I have been trying for months to write about climate change and other threats to the environment: about my fear of the fires and floods; the plastic patch the size of Texas in the Pacific; the disappearing bees, the skies nearly empty of birds. I am aghast at those who refuse to acknowledge climate change, like smokers denying the connection between their habit and their cancer. I am confused by the lack of urgency our governments exhibit, and the questions they don’t have the courage to ask, much less debate. I vacillate between rage and a philosophical detachment. The rage is frustrating because I have no clear enemy to pummel. The detachment sometimes feels too much like giving up too soon. It’s like suffering all the stages of grief at once. It’s hard to write, at least coherently, when fear, sadness and rage are jockeying for pride of place on the keyboard.

Our predicament feels Hitchcockian. Like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, I see loved ones in danger and am flayed by our desperate helplessness. How can you know that something this bad is happening and be powerless to stop it? What sadistic, capricious god gives us the capacity to diagnose without giving us the capacity to heal? Or the capacity, but not the will? In this sense, perhaps this grief is more like dealing with a suicide: there is a sense that the impending disaster is actually willed, not just a fate to which we must submit.

I love this Planet: the flowing, falling, freezing, heaving, melting water; all the seasons; shy deer leaping away through the trees or eating from my hand; great flocks of birds launching themselves into the morning; the shock of thunderstorms; the playfulness of young animals; massive whales, massively graceful; the sun setting on El Capitan in Yosemite, making it glow like backlit quartz; the magic of fireflies in my grandparents’ back yard; the majesty of a redwood forest that makes people giggle as often as it makes them hush . . .

I love much of the people-built world, too, though that love wrestles with my misanthropy. I despise our capacity to use power against the weak among us; our ability to delay acting, or to wait for others to act first; our selfishness, that can persist beyond childhood into a rapacious adulthood – these things make me wonder if Kurt Vonnegut was right when he said that we are an interesting, but failed, experiment. “The good Earth,” he wrote. “[W]e could have saved it, but we were too damn cheap and lazy.” (A Man Without A Country) What a species.

Yet our capacity for creativity, compassion, and perseverance inspire us to use words like “miraculous” for our own accomplishments. In our darkest hours, our capacity for heroism blazes. Writers and film makers move us to tears by depicting our kindness to strangers. We can find peace in gardens, cathedrals, and meditation halls, before paintings and sculptures in museums – all made by people, all expressing who we are and how much we have to give. And then there is the great-hearted writing of people like Twain, Dickens, and Vonnegut, who saw so much suffering in their own lives.

I don’t believe in blame any more. Not for this. The behaviors that have brought us here were, by and large, not ill-intended. Plastics made things safer and more convenient for a long time before they became a massive garbage dump in the Pacific. Oil and coal and gas made it possible for people to visit far-flung places, and to stay warm in winter, long before we knew that they were fouling the whole planet. Yes, there are some who take money to confuse us about our condition and its causes, and they do bear particular blame. But there are few of them, and they either know what they are doing or are pitiably deluded.

I want so badly to do something to make it all better, to be heroic. I can only make decisions for my own life, and while these are comically inadequate to the situation, they are what I can do, how I can show up. It seems the least I can do, to live a little more in harmony with my values. It won’t save the world, but it will signal my acknowledgement of the situation and my respect and love for what is passing.

Knowing the truth doesn’t always mean you can fix it. Knowing that Dad was dying would not have changed that fact. Knowing that the relationship between humans and our planet is changing doesn’t tell me how that’s going to unfold, or which of the species or people I love will or won’t survive.

There has been a lot of death recently. People died from a tornado in Joplin, Missouri; species, and the industries that live off them in the Gulf of Mexico, have been damaged by BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster; forests of New Mexico, Arizona and Texas last year, and the forests around Moscow the year before; the homes of New York and New Jersey which took the brunt of Superstorm Sandy; the sinking Maldives; and Australia, which burns with nearly 130º temperatures as I write this. I don’t see a lot of reason for hope that we can make the difference we’d most like to make. Even with all of this happening, year after year, world governments have yet to show any interest, much less urgency. It’s as if they have received the death sentence, and decided not to fight any longer.

The difference we’d most like to make is not possible, and never has been, any more than it’s possible for individuals to live forever in good health. To see our actions as inadequate in the face of a perfect world that we can imagine, but that we cannot create and has never existed, is a way of creating resignation and futility. It’s like saying, “I can’t bring them back from the dead, so I won’t do what needs doing – to go to the funeral and be with the family.” We are here now, and this is the situation we face.

We are only helpless, and our actions inconsequential, relative to a perfect world that has never existed. In the real world, people die, and make bad choices, and they and their children must live with them. And yet here, in the face of that hard truth, in that context – this is where we show up. This is really what it means to be human in the world. An ideal world wouldn’t need us. But we’re needed here.

Thanks for coming.

  1. Hi John,

    I saw that your name and a reference to your blog in an old issue of the Cornell Report, and so decided to look you up. I agree with the previous comment–I really appreciate your very thought-provoking comments. I lost both my parents over ten years ago now, and at times still feel very strong moments of grief. Last year, the last relative of that generation in my family passed away, and that was also a very sobering event. Life goes on, though.

    I also read the beginning of another post that provided a brief history of your publishing career, inheritances, and travels. It all sounds very interesting and it would be great to catch up with you sometime.

    Take care,

    Anne Markham Coffman
    Cornell Class of 1979

  2. Thank you so much for sharing that story, sir.

    And it’s nice to find your new blog home as well;)

  3. Hello John,
    I saw your comment on the Friends of Barbara page (I just found out that sad news today) and, following that link, discovered this very thought-provoking blog. Thank you for writing so eloquently about grief and powerlessness. I just lost my dad last year, and those feelings are very raw and alive. I didn’t know you were such a beautiful writer! Lovely to see your posts and to know where you are and what you’ve been doing in these many years since last we spoke.
    With best wishes and a hug,

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