Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Detritus of Death

UPDATE: A version of this post (edited and including reference to the awful shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C.) also appeared on the Huffington Post website on September 18, 2013.


A friend died of cancer a few weeks ago.

That, of course, in itself is unsettling, heartbreaking, emotional. He was an amazing person, who fought the valiant fight against kidney cancer, chronicling it all with humor, grace, wit, determination, and courage on his own blog, The Kidney Cancer Chronicles.

But I knew almost immediately, that it wasn't just him and his death that swallowed me instantly into a fog; made me want to curl up in a ball; flung me into the dark depths. Though his loss to this world is enough to cause all of those things. Still, I knew that wasn't just it.

Recognition does not mean realization though. After all, recognition is sometimes no more than a nod of the head, a spark in the eye, a distant wave. It can be slight, tiny, barely perceptible, and in no way related to or even hinting of realization.

Realization is a different animal entirely. Realization is understanding. Realization is comprehending. Realization is knowing. Realization is hard -- it can be one of the most difficult things. Especially when it comes to death.

Realization is having to come to terms with the fact that someone you love is gone. Poof. You can't talk to them again, write them, even text them. You can't hold their hand, hug them. You can't share an event, a time, a moment with them. The sun will rise and set, beauty will dawn, darkness will fall, life will continue.... And you won't be able to share any of this with them again.

But realization is not final; call it a process, a dawning, a path. It is not complete. It is never finished. Especially when it come to death.

When I heard that morning about my friend's death, the impact was profound, shattering, devastating. And as amazing as a person as he was, something felt off, deeper, stronger, darker. It took me the entire day to finally put my finger on it: It was only a few days before the anniversary of my mother's death.


I used to think that because I was blessed enough to have my mother for most of my life, and that she was blessed enough to live a full life, that her death would not be that hard -- would not, really, be that big of a deal. That once I got through the first initial moments, days, weeks, months, year -- it would get better.

And it does. To a certain extent. Grief and mourning are definitely a process, a dawning, a path. Each moment, day, week, month, year -- it does get a bit better. A bit less acute. A bit less intense. A bit. A bit.

Yet realization is also a process. And as those moments, days, weeks, months, years pass, the realization gets more acute, more intense. That knowledge -- profound, shattering, devastating -- that this person you loved is gone. This person who played such a huge role in your life, no matter what that role was, has stepped off stage. Stage right, lights dim, curtain falls.

But it is not intermission.

And therein lies the rub.

The grief and mourning over the actual death lessen. The pain of human loss lessens, becomes a bit less sharp; the ache lessens, becomes a bit less choking. But the realization of the entirety of the loss only increases. It is no longer about the person themselves -- it is about the events, the moments, that they are missing. That you cannot share with them.

It is about the lack of their presence in every moment of your life going forward.

Even the most joyous of moments are tinged irrevocably. A smear of grey, a whiff of sorrow, a shadow of despair. A brief sense of loss, of something -- someone -- missing. Of incompleteness.

My father once described love as the sense that looking at a sunset is made all the more beautiful by sharing it with someone else, being able to discuss it in the moment, as well as later -- so that the sunset lives on in your minds, by being able to recall it, share it again and again. Shared experiences; shared memory. One plus one does not equal just two. It equals two squared. And removing one from the equation creates zero.

Death is not as simple as a curtain falling, a door closing, a book coming to its end. It is not as simple as turning the page, locking the door, exiting the stage. It is simply not simple. It is complicated and difficult and demanding. It does not go gently into that good night. Perhaps for the dying, but for the living, it is not sweet, nor brings blessed rest. Death is ongoing and never-ending. The body may no longer be present, but the absence of that body is always present.

I always thought death was a "yes" or "no" question. I have realized it is a "present" or "not present" question.

And the "not present" is unsettling, heartbreaking, emotional. It is profound, shattering, devastating. It is incredibly present in its absence. People talk about the sound of silence, but the silence of absence is overwhelming. The absence is overwhelming. It fills, sifting into the cracks and crevices. The loose material that is the direct result of disintegration. The pieces, small and large, that are left behind when something breaks, falls apart, is destroyed, is gone.

The detritus of death. Which is never absent. Which is always present.

Hello detritus, my old friend....

Friday, September 13, 2013

A Father's Lessons

UPDATE: A version of this post also appeared on the National Review website on September 9, 2013.


Michael Novak turned 80 on September 9. During his eight decades, he has contributed immeasureably to our society and to our political discourse. His latest book, his political memoir, was released on September 3:

The Saturday prior to his birthday, he celebrated surrounded by family and friends, such as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Karl Rove, Librarian of Congress James Billington, former Veterans Secretary and former Ambassador to the Vatican James Nicholson, Joanne Kemp, Weekly Standard founder and editor Bill Kristol, National Review editor Rich Lowry, Mary Ellen Bork, Huffington Post editor Danielle Crittenden, The Hill editor Hugo Gurdon, and many others.

I gave the following speech in his honor.


My father has taught me many things over the years. Lessons that have stuck with me despite the time that has passed and the geographic distance between us now. Indeed, one of those lessons is from decades ago — and is perhaps most appropriate for this evening...

As one of the things my father taught me was that, as a child, one should be seen and not heard. You all know the classic saying I am sure.

Secretary Nicholson, Suzanne Nicholson & Michael Novak
Apparently, I took this to heart — not surprisingly. I am my father’s daughter after all. For there is a story of one dinner party my parents hosted, where I came downstairs repeatedly, each time in a different outfit. I then proceeded to — silently, of course — twirl about, show my clothes off, and — still completely silently — acknowledge my audience before disappearing upstairs again.

Twirl, acknowledge, repeat.

Letter of the law though: I was seen and not heard . . . and even my father, taskmaster and disciplinarian that he was, had to admit as much. Much to his chagrin!

Supreme Court Justice Clarence & Virginia Thomas
Well, tonight no costume changes are necessary, as I will be heard, as well as seen, though my father might wish the opposite were still true. As, in celebration of his 80 years on this earth, I will share with all of you a few of the many things my father has taught me, such as. . . .

That God made Notre Dame “number one”, and also, seemingly contradictory yet still accurate, that God may not care who wins or loses, but His Mother sure does.

That questioning and curiosity are virtues — unless I’m questioning him too much.

That there is a positive to having determination, and even hard-headedness, but that it’s a fine line that is not always best crossed.
And that it is a “Novak trait” to cross that line.

Joanne Kemp, Librarian of Congress Billington & Marjorie Billington

That criticism — ahem scholarly feedback is I think how he’d prefer it to be noted — is an integral part to growth and development, except when the tables are turned.
(After all, I’m sure most of you have heard his lament about our first book together, and that my “scholarly feedback” was instead the “heartbreaking loss” of page after page of “the most beautiful prose ever.”)

That sports are our religion, our sustenance, and our glory – Alabama’s victory notwithstanding.

That humor should be practiced regularly and implemented frequently; a day lacking laughter is a day lacking value.
Karl Rove

That high standards, ethics, and honor are what make us who we are; without them, we are nothing. (Of course, he plagiarized this from his father, but who’s counting?)

That charm will actually get you everywhere – as will feigning helplessness.

That passion — for work, for others — is the key to a life well-lived and well-loved.

When I look at my father, I see a man who has taught me so much.

A scholar who emphasized questioning, challenging, learning. A professor who emphasized constant education.

Susan Kristol, Rich Lowry & Bill Kristol
A sportsman who emphasized the pursuit of happiness in playing or watching athletic endeavors. A zealot who emphasized that God — or at least His Mother — made Notre Dame the best. A believer who emphasized faith, even when his team got rolled.

A witty man who emphasized being quick with a joke and even quicker with a laugh.

An honorable man who emphasized that doing right is not a matter of who is watching. An ethical man who emphasized painting the underside of the stool despite the fact no one sees it. A gentle man who emphasized kindness and compassion. A tough man who emphasized never backing down from a fight, nor from high standards.

Danielle Crittenden Frum
An intense man who emphasized dedication to one’s work, one’s passion, one’s love. A loving man who emphasized the many terms for love in Latin, and strove to achieve them all regularly.

A charming man who could woo a critic, a stewardess, and an audience equally. A talented man who could compete against the best of them. A generous man who never failed to share the spotlight.

As one of the many recipients of that spotlight here tonight, I should highlight this simple fact:

The public Michael Novak is the same as the private Michael Novak — and all of us are blessed that this is true. As it means all of us can and should learn from him and his example.

So . . .

Thank you, dad, for being such an incredible role model and inspiration — to me and to so many people. Thank you — and Happy Birthday!