When the going gets tough, who doesn’t yearn for the comfort of home? Well, a lot of people, actually, for whom “home” was not so wonderful; but the image of a home worth returning to may be the most powerful image ever devised. “Homefree” in tag; “stealing home” in baseball. Home is “Father, Mother, safety, hugs, and hot milk,” says novelist John Braine (Room at the Top). Elvis Presley sang “Home is where the heart is” a line first coined in 1829, or maybe even (some people insist, without evidence) 1st-century Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder. “Home sweet home” goes back to a British cleric, Joseph Beaumont (1616-1699), who meant it, however, as the place we go to when we die; it was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin that transformed it into as a slice of perfection here on earth, albeit a Protestant slice: “a belief in God and trust in Providence” that “encircles the heart as with a golden cloud of protection and confidence.” The Jewish version is chadesh yameinu k’kedem, “Renew our days as of old,” from Lamentations, and then, a concluding line to the synagogue ritual of returning the Torah to the ark.
Who wouldn’t want to go back to that kind of home again! How awful of Thomas Wolfe to name a book You Can’t go Home Again, especially when you want it most, when you “come to the end of something and to the beginning of something else.”
This is the sort of thing I have been pondering as I consider my wife Gayle’s death exactly 6 months ago today. You may recall my writing then of the difficulty rowing home from the State of Grief and finding landing in the State of Wellbeing, albeit not exactly at the spot where I had left. But I am feeling more “at home” finally. I have indeed returnedhome, I now know, but paradoxically, Wolfe was right as well. Having “come to the end of something and to the beginning of something else,” I can’t altogether go home again, and much as I can “renew my days,” I cannot do so “as before.”
I am still surrounded by residues of that “before,” the leftovers of a life unraveling and the traces of dying: the vials of pills; the piles of adult diapers that Gayle resisted until the end; the buckets and the mouth swabs. What I could, I gave away or recycled; the rest, I threw out.
Anthropologist Mary Douglas would have called it all “dirt.” What counts as dirt, she pointed out, varies from culture to culture. But everywhere, dirt is “matter out of place.” We either find it a place (so it is no longer dirt) or we get rid of it — or even hide it at the back of a closet (like sweeping it under the carpet) — so our place is “clean.”
But mostly what Gayle left behind are the traces of a life once lived, a sort of upscale “dirt,” in that with Gayle gone, there is no rightful place for it all: her clothes, in general; the hats she loved to wear; the books she read or never finished; the pretty tea cups that she loved; even her car that she kept in tiptop shape and watched over like a hawk.
There are also all those gizmos, doodads, tchatchkes, and whatchamacallits to which we become attached or that attach themselves to us, in the ordinary course of a lifetime, especially if we have enough means to buy or to be given stuff we don’t really need in the first place. To prevent it all becoming ordinary dirt (matter out of place) that must be thrown out, we give it a place (the garage, attic, or basement). The best of the stuff gets labeled “family heirlooms” (great-great grandpa’s medal from World War I), “antiques” (some Vintage Old-Lock Bronze Steampunk Skeleton Keys), or even “art” (grandma’s cross-stitched tablecloth) — in which case, it gets a place where everyone can still see it.
We all die eventually, leaving traces of our life behind. Someone will surely want this, we say: my daughter, my son, my someone, will want Aunt Yetta’s brooch, the antique vase on the table, the leather-bound works of William Shakespeare. But the thing is, nobody does want most of it. Our heirs trundle off with what appeals to them or what they haven’t the heart to trash. But they throw a lot away and bundle the rest for Goodwill.
What is left of us, I wonder, when we die, when all the things that symbolized who we were belong to someone else, or even to no one at all? That was the question of Ecclesiastes, who ups the ante to include accomplishments as well: not just the books we owned but the books we wrote; even, maybe, the families we raised – they too will grow up and old and be gone. If we’re not Plato or Einstein, William Shakespeare or Jane Austen, how long will any of us be remembered? I don’t mean as an alphabetized name on a memorial list, mechanically intoned and possibly mispronounced with no one knowing it. I mean really remembered. Everything disappears eventually, doesn’t it?
I have come to believe that we do get to go back home again: to the “home sweet home” of Joseph Beaumont, actually; or, in Jewish tradition, the bet almin (eternal home) or bet olam [haba] (“home of the world to come”), as we call our final resting place, not just of a perishable body, but an imperishable soul. Yes, “soul,” an entity that is indefinable because it isn’t really an “entity”; it’s a word that we use by default, to affirm a certain “moreness” to life — more, that is, than just its physicality. It is a verbal “placeholder” for a concept that no other word seems up to the task of describing. Religion specializes in these placeholders – “God” being the most important. We do not know exactly what God is, but we do not on that account give up the word, because it too points us toward the moreness that we intuit beyond the merely material — a pointer toward ultimacy.
We are well familiar with the metaphor of “footprint.” Some people leave a heavy footprint in their wake; others do not. Our carbon footprint will impact the planet for centuries. I think there is also a “soulprint” of what the soul bequeathes to future generations. There are old souls, known for their wisdom; evil souls too, alas, who spew hatred and violence; but loving, kind and helpful souls as well, whose soulprint of goodness lasts far beyond the death of the person whose soul it was. The soulprint of the good only grows in luster. The material traces of our lives are quickly forgotten: but not the quality of our soulprint, the deep and impactful way that we were in the world.
So, here I am, back home, six months after. The collected traces of the life Gayle lived will be given away, claimed by others, or remain resident on my shelves as tangible reminders of her. But it is the intangible that sustains me: her soulprint that is everywhere. As the days go by, I sometimes feel alone and saddled with the solitary task of having to break new ground; but equally, sometimes, my soul meets hers as I slip softly into the soulprint that she left behind for me.