What We Talk About When We Talk About Death

My visit with Flannery O’Connor was brutally interrupted last week when I read Aleksandar Hemon’s “The Aquarium” in The New Yorker (June 13 & 20, 2011), an essay about the death of his infant daughter Isabel from a brain tumor.  Many of O’Connor’s stories deal directly or indirectly with some of the Big Questions surrounding death from a Catholic sensibility:  good, evil, the possibility of grace and redemption.  Hemon’s essay is something different.  It’s nonfiction, of course.  But Hemon is a fine writer, and even in an  apparently straightforward piece about the death of his younger daughter he has crafted the narrative to say more about death than simply sharing with us the horrifying facts of his daughter’s illness and passing.  Death, language, cognition and imagination are woven together in “The Aquarium” in a way that reminds me of one of my favorite Russian stories, “Liompa,” by Yuri Olesha (1899 – 1960).

“Liompa,” only three and a half pages long, is one of the most dense and complicated stories I’ve ever read, partly because it is written in a “modernist” tradition where the surface narrative obscures rather than reveals the story’s meaning.  At the time
I read it, for a graduate-level independent study, it was available only in Russian; I’ve never read it in English and don’t want to.  Olesha does magic tricks with language (for
example, verbal aspect, which reads very differently in Russian than it does in
English) to deepen the meaning of a very simple story.  Even the best translation would of necessity lose some of this magic.

On a basic level, “Liompa” is a comparison of three ages of man, and the relationship of man to things and words at each of these three ages.  An older boy, Aleksandr, builds a
model airplane in the kitchen of a communal apartment.  He has control over things – he knows their names, and the scientific principles that govern them; his control over the world of things leads him to believe that he’s “more serious” than an adult.  In one
bedroom of this communal apartment, the old man Ponomaryov is dying.  The world of things has gradually receded from him:  first things on the periphery of his world, like train tickets and America and the possibility of being rich and handsome – things that only have meaning in the world outside the apartment; then the disappearance of things nears the center of Ponomaryov’s world – things in the room like an overcoat, boots, even the latch on the door have become mere words.  The third character in the story is a “rubber boy,” an unnamed toddler.  Things seem to follow him around, but he doesn’t know their names or have any real concept of their meanings or of the scientific principles (like gravity) that govern them.

As the old man approaches death, disappearing things leave only their names, which are meaningless abstractions.  He hears rustling in the kitchen and assumes that it is a rat; hears noises that convince him that the rat is washing dishes (even a rat in the kitchen has more power over the world than he); he thinks that the rat may have its own name, unbeknownst to mankind; and he believes that if he learns its name, he will die.
At a critical moment, the old man cries out the rat’s name – “Liompa!” – a nonsense word, a complete abstraction devoid of any meaning whatsoever.

Early the next morning, he wanders into the kitchen and looks out the door to the courtyard, where Aleksandr is flying his model plane.  It is the last thing he
sees:  he tries to catch the plane, fails, and dies.  The boy Aleksandr, having power over things, helps to bring his coffin into the apartment; the rubber boy gains mastery over a word by naming his first object, calling out, “Grandpa! Grandpa!  They’ve brought you a coffin!”

Some aspects of Hemon’s essay seemed to echo the surface narrative of “Liompa,” particularly these passages about his older daughter Ella, who was similar in age to Olesha’s “rubber boy”:

“[About this time, Ella] began talking about her imaginary brother.  Suddenly, in the onslaught of her words, we would discern stories about a brother…It is not unusual, of course, for children of Ella’s age to have imaginary siblings.  The creation of an imaginary character is related, I believe, to the explosion of linguistic ability that occurs between the ages of two and four, and rapidly creates an excess of language, which the
child may not have enough experience to match. She has to construct imaginary narratives in order to try out the words that she suddenly possesses.”

Ella knows the word “California,” but has no experience related to it and cannot “conceptualize it in its abstract aspect…the words demanded the story.”  Hemon continues:

“At the same time, the surge in language at this age creates a distinction between exteriority and interiority:  the child’s interiority is now expressible and thus possible to externalize; the world doubles.  Ella could now talk about what was here and
about what was elsewhere; language had made
here and elsewhere  continuous and
simultaneous.”

The effect of Isabel’s illness on Hemon and his wife Teri is similar to the effect of death’s approach on Ponomaryov:

“While our world was being reduced to the claustrophobic size of ceaseless dread, Ella’s
was expanding.”

Olesha:  “When [Ponomaryov] understood that he was seriously ill and would die, then he also understood how great and diverse the world of things is, and how few of them were left in his power.  With each day the number of things decreased… He knew:  death, on the road to him, was destroying things.”

So this is one of the things we say when we talk about death:  its approach shrinks our world, annihilates things in it just as it prepares to annihilate us.

Words and things are at the center of Hemon’s essay, just as they are in “Liompa.”

“…right at the center of Isabel’s brain, lodged between the cerebellum, the brain stem, and the hypothalamus, was a round thing.  It was the size of a golf ball…but I’d never been interested in golf and couldn’t envision what he meant.”

 “…’it looks like a teratoid,’ he said.  I didn’t comprehend the word ‘teratoid,’ either — it was beyond my experience, belonging to the domain of the unimaginable and the incomprehensible, the domain into which Dr. Tomita was now guiding us.”

“Teri and I kissed her hands and her forehead and wept through the moment that divided our life into before and afterBefore was now and forever foreclosed, while after was spreading out, like an exploding twinkle star, into a dark universe of pain.”

Hemon talks at length about the failure of human imagination to capture the reality of death.  He says,

“There’s  a psychological mechanism, I’ve come to believe, that prevents most of us from imagining the moment of our own death.  For if it were possible to imagine fully that instant of passing from consciousness to nonexistence, with all the attendant fear and humiliation of absolute helplessness, it would be very hard to live.  It would be unbearably obvious that death is inscribed in everything that constitutes life,
that any moment of your existence may be only a breath away from being the last….
And, even if you could imagine your child’s death, why would you?…Even if you could imagine
your child’s grave illness, why would you?”

This, too, is similar to what Olesha is saying in “Liompa.”  Death is inscribed into the rubber boy’s mastery of his first word.  It is written in the very act of creativity, into Aleksandr’s use of scientific principles to build a flying model of an airplane.  Knowledge and power are transitory:  implicit in mastery and creation is our eventual annihilation.  One critic says that “Liompa” is a “critique of pure reason” – at Ponomaryov’s moment of revelation, the reader understands that “his reliance on intellect has caused him to reverse the natural order, seeing the world as a product of man, and the phenomena of physical reality as the product of language. ”

Hemon also points out some limitations of language to encompass the reality of death, writing with equal frustration and compassion about well-meaning friends who say things to him and Teri like “hang in there” and “words fail.”

“The world sailing calmly on depended on platitudes and clichés that had no logical or
conceptual connection to our experience….

“Teri and I endured their expressions of sympathy without begrudging them, as they simply didn’t know what else to say.  They protected themselves from what we were going through by limiting themselves to the manageable domain of vacuous, hackneyed language.  But we were far more comfortable with the people who were wise enough not to venture into verbal support…We much preferred talking to Doctor  Fangusaro,
who could help us to understand things that mattered, to being told to ‘hang in
there.’  (To which I would respond, ‘There is no other place to hang.’)  And we stayed away from anyone who we feared might offer us the solance of that supreme platitude:  God.”

 “One of the most common platitudes we heard was that ‘words failed.’  But words were not failing Teri and me at all.  It was not true that there was no way to describe our experience.  Teri and I had plenty of language with which to talk to each other about the horror of what was happening…the words of Dr. Fanusaro and Dr. Lulla, always painfully pertinent, were not failing, either.  If there was a communication problem, it was that there were too many words, and they were far too heavy and too specific to be inflicted on others.  (Take Isabel’s chemo drugs:  Vincristine, Methotrexate, Etoposide,
Cyclophosphamide, and Cisplatin — creatures of a particularly malign demonology.)….we let [our friends] think that words had failed, because we knew that they didn’t want to learn the vocabulary we used daily.  We were sure that they didn’t want to know
what we knew; we didn’t want to know it, either.”

He describes the experience of the short time – one hundred and eight days – from  Isabel’s diagnosis to her death with the analogy of being  in an aquarium:

“I had a strong physical sense of being in an aquarium:  I could see out, the people outside could see me (if they chose to pay attention), but we were living and breathing in entirely different environments….The walls of the aquarium we were hanging in were made of other people’s words.”

This, then, is another thing that we talk about when we talk about death:  it alters reality.  Before, there is one understanding of the world, after, another.  Words are not useless to describe the alternate reality, but they are misused despite our best intentions; they are a glass wall between the imagined and the real.

Both “The Aquarium” and “Liompa” offer revelation without redemption. Ponomaryov just…dies, having failed to catch Aleksandr’s model airplane.  Hemon, too, sees no redemption in his daughter’s death:

“We learned no lessons worth learning; we acquired no experience that could benefit
anyone.  And Isabel most certainly did not earn ascension to a better place, as there was no place better for her than at home with her family….Her indelible absence is now an organ in our bodies, whose sole function is a continuous secretion of sorrow.”

However, Ella, just coming into mastery of words, offers something for thought.

“Ella talks about Isabel’s death “cogently, her words deeply felt; she is confronted by the
same questions and longings that confront us.  Once, before falling asleep, she asked me, ‘Why did Isabel die?’ Another time, she told me, ‘I don’t want to die.’  Not so long ago, she started talking to Teri, out of the blue, about wanting to hold Isabel’s hand again, about how much she missed Isabel’s laughter.”

One morning before Isabel’s death, Hemon listens to Ella externalizing complicated
feelings by assigning them to Mingus, her imaginary brother.  He realizes that she is doing what he has always done as a writer:

“The fictional characters in my books had allowed me to understand what was hard for me to understand….Listening to Ella…I understood that the need to tell stories was deeply embedded in our minds and inseparably entangled with the mechanisms that generate and absorb language.  Narrative imagination — and therefore fiction — was a basic evolutionary tool of survival.  We processed the world by telling stories, produced human knowledge through our engagement with imagined selves.”

At the time of Isabel’s illness, Hemon says he “…could not construct a story that would help me comprehend what was happening.  Isabel’s illness overrode any forms of
imaginative involvement on my part.”
  Yet, by telling Isabel’s story in “The Aquarium,” Hemon is reaching for comprehension and communication.  The words are the glass of the fishbowl, and yet because of them we can see through; we can reach out to each other, a hand on each side of the glass, touching but not quite touching, sharing this experience that along with birth is the one event guaranteed to each human on this planet.

When we talk about death, we do so because telling the story of death is perhaps the only way we can approach an understanding of what is unimaginable and incomprehensible.  Stories help us to communicate about what matters.

The first death story I remember is that of my older sister, Kimberly Dawn.  Kim was  either stillborn or lived only a few minutes, two years before I was born.  I know her like I know Isabel Hemon:  only through someone else’s story.

I found out about Kimberly when I was around four, reading already and old enough to enjoy looking at the “baby books” in the lowest drawer of my mother’s bureau.  I had
questions about the small book at the bottom of the drawer:  pale rose, smooth, empty except for names and dates, a list of baby shower gifts (returned) and a lock of pale honey
hair.

I asked my mother:  Who was Kimberly Dawn?  Why did she die?  Did she look like me?  My mother answered with stories.  She had been left alone in a hospital room, in labor, for twenty-four hours after her water broke; there was meconium staining and eventually an emergency c-section.  The baby maybe lived a minute or two, maybe was stillborn.  She had heart and liver defects that would have resulted in her death within six months.  My mother suffered through uterine gangrene and ice baths to bring down the fever.  My father “disappeared up into the woods” for two months afterwards to process his own grief.  His older brother stayed with Mom and cared for her in those two months, because the infection prevented her incision from healing for at least that long; when I was born, she named me after my uncle because of his care.

I have my name because my older sister died.

My mother insisted on holding her baby, even dead, and made the nurses bring her even though they thought it best that she not look – as if not looking at Kimberly Dawn could render her nonexistent, as if it would somehow negate or alleviate the pain my mother felt.  She insisted on giving my sister a name, even though her headstone simply reads “Baby Bell.”

Because my mother refused to pretend my sister had never existed, she was a shadow presence in my childhood, a friend once real and simultaneously imaginary.  I made up stories for her, in which she grew up with me, always two years older, by turns caring and condescending just the way that I was with my own younger sister.  Like my younger sister, who supposedly looked just like Kimberly Dawn, she was prettier than me.  She teased me about the baby blanket that I have never quite outgrown, and competed with me for good grades, and whispered hints about boys in my ear.  Her presence at my side faded by the time I was in junior high.  My attempts to picture her as an adolescent failed – probably because I was growing up, and she could not.

Ella Hemon said that her fictitious brother Mingus, whose function is to create meaning for the words that Ella cannot comprehend, “…is also a good magician.  With his magic wand, Ella says, he can make Isabel reappear.”

This is something that we do not say often enough about death:  it can take away the loved one, but it cannot touch the past.  It cannot annihilate the stories, if we continue to tell them.

Pericles gave a speech to the families of the Athenian war dead, in which he said, “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the
lives of others.”

Because of Hemon’s facility with language, his courage in allowing us to see what is unimaginable and asking us to imagine what we do not wish to imagine, Isabel is woven into our lives, too.  She is a heavy warp thread ripped from the fabric of her family, her absence leaving a tear that will never totally be mended.  Because Hemon wrote “The Aquarium,” Isabel is now a tiny weft thread of a different color in the fabric of my life, too.  She is precious, unique, like the sister Kimberly who exists for me only in others’ words and my imagination, the sister who will always be an unmendable tear in the fabric of my life.

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About readersquest

I'm a retired naval officer and writer. I live with my husband, two sons, and several family pets in a house in the woods.
This entry was posted in Aleksandar Hemon, Stories, Yuri Olesha and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to What We Talk About When We Talk About Death

  1. JackieShepherd says:

    Lovely thoughts on a fantastic (life-changing) piece.

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