The Empty Gangplank

I’ve heard that we come into this world alone and will leave it alone. But far more real for me is the network of relationships and eventualities that constitutes the only life I know. Even if we have experienced death first-hand, don’t our lives seem to stretch out across an indefinite future with no horizon in sight? Because we can’t swim in the future, don’t we find ourselves standing on the shore, occasionally looking out to sea?

What can it mean to say that we arrive and leave this world alone? Aren’t we always still here? No matter how circumstances rule our lives, do we ever believe that we are completely defined by them? If we were only the accidental characteristics that life has instilled in us, could we live with the belief that we are empty of anything else?

I wish I could now give a universal example of these ambiguities, and of the rarely-glimpsed-rumor that we will leave this world naked of all that we have gathered into our nests. But the only message about mortality that has struck home for me personally is that one day my son was no longer here.

I don’t want the particulars of my situation to eclipse a wider recognition that I was already a visiting emigrant long before I became a survivor. It just took that shock before I could see that my visa has never been to be a permanent resident.

I wish the situation that has made me more aware of the transitory nature of everything was less defined by my individual situation; then I might have something useful to share with my fellow visitors–also on temporary visas. It’s not as if I have experienced anything that is not experienced by us all. It’s just that, for me, it took that particular sweeping away of an important pillar, before I realized how much weight it had been bearing.

Recently I caught a glimpse of how we humans say farewell. I know that I am not the only father who was present when his son ended his life. Many of us know how that closeness to our loved-one’s leave-taking feels. But those are not our only memories. Years before those last moments, we shampooed our child’s head as he sat in a tub of warm water, playing happily with his toys.

As those images swam around in my mind, something shifted. Instead of our sons telling us in their last moments that the world to which we had introduced them meant nothing, and that now we must doubt the value of everything we tried to give them—they chose us to be there as they stepped off the high diving board. Perhaps they were so angry, so devastated in their efforts to construct a life for themselves, that their ‘choice’ does not seem like it can have been ‘deliberate’. Perhaps we were there, because life chose us to be the ones standing beneath that high board, as they stepped into space. And what a space they stepped into. Not just the distance of a free-fall down into the water below. They leapt into a space with no known boundary. And somehow, we were chosen to be their last contact with all that we had known together.

Isn’t our world full of gangplanks? Are we not the ones who are looking on as our very world gives up one natural good, one treasured home, after another?

I wonder if those who stand before the empty foundations of their homes, consumed by fire carried on gale-force winds; who watch as remnants of ancient glacial ice fill their living rooms; who stand by as all they have known bids them farewell–feel that they have been singled out to learn something.

Perhaps we have all been chosen so that we can remember that a day will come when it will be us who must say farewell.

2 comments to “The Empty Gangplank”
  1. O my friend,

    Words are what we have, they’re the coins of our realm, said aloud, they exist as momentary tremblings in the air, then they settle out like a scattering of plankton in the sea,


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