Will Durant, historian and philosopher, wrote:
“The hope of another life gives us courage to meet our own death, and to bear with the death of our loved ones.”
The hope of another life. I can sympathize with that hope, certainly now. My father died one year ago today, and that has led me to yearn for a life after this one.
My father had been ill for a long time – he’d been fighting cancer for two years when I got the call from my mother telling me to come home immediately. After hastily booking flights, my fiancé Kolten and I traveled to the UK together, flying overnight Sunday to arrive Monday morning. We drove straight from the airport to the hospital, and I grew increasingly agitated as we circled the parking lot again and again trying to find a space: they were rebuilding part of the hospital at the time, so parking was scarce and it took us a while. My mother, not the most patient person at the best of times, was borderline frantic. But we finally parked the car and worked our way through the warren of long, sterile corridors of the hospital to the room where my father was dying.
My mother opened the door. My dad was there, lying in a hospital bed, his head turned away from me. His hair was greyer than I remember it being last time I saw him, back in January, but I couldn’t see anything other than that. Then he turned toward me. He didn’t look like my father. When I’ve tried to describe it, words fail me. He was gaunt? Haggard? Skeletal? Truth is, he looked like the Crypt Keeper. If you haven’t seen that show, think the living dead. Zombie. He looked so different, like all the life had been sucked out. His chin was sharper, his eyes sunken, his breath labored. His teeth looked like a skull’s teeth, his arms like matchsticks with skin on them, like a puppet. People had told me “He’s lost a lot of weight,” but that wasn’t nearly right. He had lost almost everything.
For a moment I was afraid he wouldn’t recognize me. But he does, and tries to smile. He sees Kolten, who is crying by now – and I have never seen Kolten cry like that. He lifts his shrunken hand and greets my boyfriend, now my fiancé. That is so like my father – genteel to the last. We try to talk, but he cannot– the medicine makes his mouth too dry. His deafness, which had been advancing even before the cancer, is now acute. So instead I write things on a yellow pad of paper, and he scrawls his response. “He makes me very happy,” I write. “Good,” he squiggles back. At one point, when Kolten and my mother have left the room, he fixes me with his eyes, which now look enormous in his gaunt face, and says “I didn’t think I’d be here so quickly. I thought I’d have months.” Every word is its own sentence, forced out weakened lungs. I don’t have anything to say to that. I thought we’d have years, decades even, with each other. I had plans for us, my father and I. Those plans will never be.
The next morning, my mum and I drove again to the hospital. I show my father the ring I’d designed and bought for Kolten. He asks if I’ve proposed, and I tell him I’m going to tomorrow. That hadn’t been my plan, but I wanted to do it while my father was alive, to give him that happiness. He nods his head, then decides it’s time for us to leave. He expresses his desire firmly: in a voice stronger than any I’ve heard from him since we arrived, he tells my mother and I to “Go. Away!” Then, when we take too long to leave, he repeats his directive even more emphatically: “GO. AWAY!”
Those were the last words my father said to me. I find that darkly amusing. We did go away, and began the slow drive home. Halfway through the park, however, I get a call from the hospital – get here as soon as possible. My mother asks me to ask the nurse why, though in my mind it’s perfectly obvious, and the nurse confirms my fears – my father is dying. “I hope you arrive in time,” she says. So we turn round the car and start heading back to the hospital. This is a tragi-comic affair. To get back to the hospital we had to drive through Richmond Park, which is an area of parkland owned by the Crown Estate. Deer roam in Richmond park – royal deer, owned by the Queen – and there is an extremely strict, extremely low speed limit, which is enforced ruthlessly. So my mother is driving through the park, with great anxiety on her face, a profound feeling of urgency in the car, racing to get to my father’s bedside – at 20 miles per hour.
When we arrive, we trot through the corridors at a half-run to find the door to my father’s room closed. The nurses and support staff are conspicuous in their absence. My mother asks what is going on, and a worried-looking nurse tells her that the doctor will be along shortly. My mother does not wait for the doctor. “F- this!”, she cries, and storms into my father’s room. My father isn’t there. His body is there, small and shrunken on the hospital bed. But he is not. My father is gone.
I would love to believe he hasn’t just gone, but that gone somewhere. That there is a place where he will continue to run 5ks in the park, and watch quiz shows on television and call out an answer before the question has even been read in full. That there is a place where he is not sick and silent in a hospital bed, but more as I remember him, always with a book and a glass of red wine. In the difference between my father, and my father’s body, that is the space where I can understand the need for people to believe in the soul. There is a world of difference between a body and a person, and it is only natural to wonder, when we’re faced with the death of someone we love, “Where did all that personality go?” If one moment my father was there, and a few minutes later just a body is there but he is not, then it’s easy to conclude that we can’t be just our bodies – there must have been something in there animating the body, a ghost in the machine. A soul. I understand why people want to believe that. I want to believe that, now.
But I don’t I don’t believe human beings have a soul, in the literal sense. I don’t think there is an immaterial essence inside of us which makes us go. I hold to the contemporary, secular, scientific view, which has been developed only in the past 100 years or so. According to this view, we human beings are essentially biological machines, and our personality is just the result of biochemical processes. Just as a computer converts electrical signals into a program, our bodies convert biochemical impulses into a person. All the things traditionally thought of to be expressions of the soul – our rationality, our emotions, our character, our personality – are in fact phenomena which emerge from our bodies. With apologies to Master Yoda, we are not luminous beings housed in a material body, but crude matter after all.
Perhaps, though, we can reclaim the idea of the soul. Perhaps we can ask “Understanding the soul is not a literal thing but an idea, what does that idea mean?” Maybe we can take some advice from our Roman Catholic friends, and return to the definition of the soul offered in the Catechism: the soul is “the innermost aspect of humans, that which is of greatest value in them.” This idea doesn’t require any supernaturalism at all: we all have attributes of great value, we all have characteristics of our personality which are unique to us, that comprise our inner selves. Is this a way to rescue the idea of the soul from the lure of the supernatural?
I think it is. When we say “That music moved my soul!” or “That was a soulful performance” or “That food filled my soul!”, we don’t have to mean anything magical or supernatural by that. We can mean, simply, that the experience touched us deeply, that it had profound value, that it connected with us in those places which are uniquely ours. When we think about the soul of a loved one after they are gone, that doesn’t have to be a physical thing that can be weighed and measured or seen. Instead we can think of what was of greatest value in them, and try to and try to realize that value in our own lives. In that way we can not only honor their “soul”, but also take part of it with us.
This gives me some hope and comfort when I think about my father. His soul didn’t fly out of his body while we were driving at a snail’s pace through Richmond Park. It isn’t waiting for me in a realm beyond reality. But all the things which made him who he was – his love of learning, his impossibly slow running, his passion for wine – all those things persist in marks his life left in the people who knew him. His “soul” survives in me, and in my family, and in his colleagues and his friends. Whenever I learn a new piece of trivia, and think “My dad would have loved that!”, some part of his soul lights up my mind. Whenever I go for a run in the morning, and remember our last Christmas Day together, when I went out in the cold and trudged around the park with him, with every step I carry a piece of my father’s soul. Whenever I open a bottle of champagne, and remember his advice:
“You shouldn’t pop a champagne cork. It’s vulgar and draws attention to the fact you’re having champagne. You should open it quietly, like you have it all the time. Not noisily like it’s unusual”
Whenever I remember that advice, I imagine I hear in the whisper of the cork as it leaves the bottle, a sigh from my father’s soul.