Twenty-six years at Johns Hopkins University left me with profound regard for the human mind’s powers of comprehension. We can comprehend the size of planets orbiting distant stars. We comprehend how to write sublime symphonies. We comprehend how cells age, how ancient Babylonians did business, how to repair a premature baby’s heart, and how to hear the faintest reverberations of the Big Bang. We comprehend the human genome and how the tiniest bits of matter and energy comprise a universe.
Our brains are constituted to understand so many astonishing things. But they are not constituted to comprehend the sudden loss of someone we love.
Late last week, a beloved friend died. Her name was Catherine, and she was only 53 and in seemingly vibrant health, and for days I didn’t grieve because I was in a state of incomprehension. There was a rent in my heart and an abrupt blankness in my mind. I could grasp and live with the first. I am old enough to have experienced tragic loss more than once. You never want to get used to it, but you know what to expect and you know the course your heart will follow, and there’s sad but meaningful reassurance in that. The void in my mind was another matter.
My life’s work has been paying attention to the small portion of life before me and teasing out order and connection and meaning and, when I can find it, beauty. I’ve committed myself to it for so many decades because I love it, but also because I no longer know any other way to live. When I learned of Catherine’s passing, I instantly experienced that deeply unsettling sense of my body’s core falling away. We say my heart sank and that’s apt. We don’t have a similar ready phrase for what happened in that moment when a mutual friend bravely called me to say Catherine died last night, no words for the way my mind went dark as if I too had died for an instant. Everything I rely on to orient myself in the present had vanished. Just as fast I was back, aware of my feet on the ground and the sun on my face, but also aware of a loss I will never make sense of.
Nothing teaches you the meaning of forever like the death of someone your heart has embraced.
Catherine was a friend, a teacher, an exemplar, someone who drew out of me some of my finest work. I owe the latter part of my career to her, and my best times at the magazine we edited. She set me right when I needed it and set a hand on my shoulder when I needed that. We were close enough she could cry in front of me, and let me hold her firstborn days after her birth, and hold my gaze when neither of us had the right words but we needed communion anyway.
All of it gone now. But I wrap myself in the consolation that I am better for the years that my life was braided with hers. The void remains, but I have more work to do. I look up Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day” and draw breath from it again:
Tell me, what else should I have done? // Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? // Tell me, what is it you plan to do // With your one wild and precious life?