Dateline Downtown

Dan Roche

Last Saturday, the funeral home up the street from my house was crowded with mourners. Imette St. Guillen, a beautiful and gifted graduate student, was being laid to rest, another victim of this cold concrete world we find ourselves in. I knew her. I’m having trouble writing this- I feel that there is just so much to say, but also that there are simply no words for this sheer, raw human tragedy.

Her sister said during the service that ”I want to wrap my arms around (her) and ease any pain you ever had in your life.” It’s an inexpressible, inexorable sadness, a grief that most of us can’t imagine but that, sooner or later, we will all feel in this vale of tears. Such is the terrible price of loving another.

I decided that I would go to pay my respects at the service. I wrote a small poem to leave by her casket and prepared myself. By the time I had gotten there it was already over, and most of the people had filed out. I said a quick prayer at the door and turned to leave. As I walked away I was struck by a sudden urge to turn around, and there I saw a small woman standing alone on the sidewalk looking at me. She seemed past grief. It must have been her mother. For a split second, our eyes met.

There was no holding the gaze, though everything in me told me that I should, that she needed- oh, so much more than I could ever give her, but immediately it seemed like she needed empathy. And I just couldn’t hold, it was too overwhelming. I turned, looked down at the ground and walked on. I remembered the poem that I had in my pocket, and considered giving it, and a hug, to her- but by the time I turned around again, she was gone.

It’s something we hear so much that the meaning is almost lost to us- appreciate every moment that you have on this Earth, and those around you, because it really is all we have. There’s an old story concerning a Japanese Zen master who was on his deathbed. His head student asked him if he had any last words to impart to his lineage. Looking up at the ceiling he began laughing and finally bellowed out: “Life is short! Life is short! Life is very, very short!” And so it is.

I want you, as a reader, to read every word closely, to swallow it whole and extract every spare bit of meaning that you can from it. Go home and write, or draw, or study, drink deeply. Exhaust your creativity. Defeat the depression that’s been plaguing you- love, so that embarrassment is out of the question- live! Live! Live! Not draining every spare second of every drop of ultimate importance,- your primary responsibility to this beautiful, unique human existence that you’ve been inexplicably blessed beyond belief with- wasting time, is not simply cheating yourself; it’s cheating the Universe.

I understand entirely what Ms. St. Guillen’s sister was saying. There are people in my own life, and probably yours too, whose presence has left us but that we still feel, like a phantom limb. Aching, but not here. I want to absorb all the pain they felt, all the sadness and disappointment, I want to process it through my body and return to them absolute, unconditional loving-kindness. But I can’t. It’s one of the great tragedies of life that time, which may or may not heal all wounds, inarguably levels everything in its path. Nothing is permanent, least of all us and those we love.

Nepenthe(To the memory of Imette St. Guillen)

Regret not what you leave beneathAt your ascent, O Soul;Aflight on winged MemoryBe sure none forget you.Salve ailing spirits, Soul, I pleaThat thirst for balm and cureDispense to them a remedyAnd guide them, safe and sure.