Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The red thread

I am seventy-two years old and have never witnessed a human death. I have been there as loved ones -- father and mother, most prominently -- awaited the approaching darkness, but I was not present when the last flicker of light was extinguished. For this, I suppose, I should feel grateful, retaining a kind of innocence, a blessed lacuna in the realm of possible experience. I think of how for so many in the world death is a commonplace and sometimes grisly presence.

In the journal my father kept as he lay dying of cancer, he recounts a dream in which he is a ball of twine rolling down a spiral staircase, unwinding as he goes. As he descends, he passes his children going up. They do not notice.

It is a sad dream, not altogether true. We were there, as our lives permitted, to attend his unreeling. Would I have wanted to be at his side when the string came to an end and there was nothing more? I do not know.

It is a decisive moment, between life and non-life, amazingly abrupt when one thinks about the long, rich course of a life -- the difference between string and no string. I thought of my father's dream as I watched again today one of Arthur Ganson's whimsical machines in the college art gallery, called "The Accumulation of Time." Ganson set the machine going some weeks ago as the show opened. A whirring motor is geared down so that a blood-red thread is slowly, ever so slowly, almost imperceptibly, unwound to accumulate on the white pedestal. Will the spool of thread last till the end of show? Will someone be there when the last bit of thread falls into the pile?

Virginia Woolf has an essay called "The Death of the Moth." She watches a tiny moth flutter against a window pane, from one corner to another. "Watching him," she wrote, "it seemed as if a fiber, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body." She imagined the moth's life as a thread of vital light. And, of course, as she watched the thread ran out. The spool of the insect's metabolism stopped turning. "As I looked at the dead moth, this minute wayside triumph of so great a force over so mean an antagonist filled me with wonder. Just as life had been strange a few minutes before, so death was now as strange."