The torment of the double-minded man, split between thoughts of the mortal and immortal, trying to make sense of both and succeeding at neither. This goes on all the time in the background. It is the clock on the wall hanging behind you as you read this, always ticking away whether you regard it or not. And then the lamp swings suddenly the wrong way, the light hits the clock and you, inside of the room, have to pay attention. Death has a way of doing this to the double-minded man.
On the morning of September 19, my grandmother Dorothy Cook died at Tallwoods Nursing Home in Bayville, New Jersey, at the age of 89. Had she lived to January 2013, I would have seen her every Sunday excepting three (one work-related, two weather-related) for five years. I promised her that and I can feel absolved in some way for having been so distant from her all those years before. That distance was not a lack of love; I always loved my grandparents…all of them. But relative youth is callow. We don’t know about losing until it is full-blown loss. Too many of my relatives went that way. I swore not to let it happen again, and so we went out to lunch on Sundays until she could no longer go out. As recently as last Sunday I brought her pudding, about all she was able to eat anymore. She couldn’t wake up enough to swallow and the brown chocolate just sort of slid out the side of her mouth onto the pillow. I fished out the bit in her mouth with a tissue, mostly for fear she would choke on it. Her eyes never fully opened in the time I and my Uncle were there, and I knew.
Wednesday morning was confirmation of a long slide that happened over the course of a year. Essentially I had a year to prepare for the eventuality that, even so, has set me back on my heels. I don’t know what I’ll be doing this Sunday. I don’t know what, at all, to do.
The double-minded man believes fervently in the soul as a true and tangible thing, feels that this crucial thing inside such frailty as flesh has to be more than a collection of fired synapses and chemical reactions. He believes that one day we will be reunited and we won’t be separated forever. He believes that death is not the end. At the same time, he has been given no evidence of the existence of this other world. He has experienced death before and has witnessed first-hand how a life can be so completely removed from others, to the point that he has to remind them that this soul once existed somehow. Science says we’re a digit, a one or a zero. We are or we aren’t and there are no degrees of semi-on. When our loved ones go, they are gone completely, never to be again in any way. It is a deeply depressing belief in diametric opposition to belief in a spiritual existence.
If man invented “god,” we did so like any child does, for reasons why any child would. What a terrible thing for a parent to tell a child they were an accident, that they weren’t wanted, that their existence is solely thanks to the condom breaking. If man invented “god,” man did so in order to not feel like humanity was unwanted. Instead, not only were we wanted but we were welcomed as individuals, unique and special. We’re not oversized paramecium. We’re children trying to get home to the parents we love, the parents who love us. That is why we believe in a capital G God, but the double-minded man also has to have that conversation with himself…the one that makes his eyes hurt and his stomach tense up.
In a couple of days we will lower a prepared hunk of genetic material in a fabric-lined wood box into dirt. The bugs will destroy all of it over time, with everything that was Dorothy Cook eternally lost because there is nothing immortal. We’re on. We’re off. Ones. Zeros. An accident, every one of us. She is not with me in spirit because there are no spirits, and this nagging specter that dares assume itself as truth is the only thing left to haunt me. And it does.
Hollywood has hundreds of variations of what heaven is. It could be a rolling meadow of swaying wheat fronds, or a plane of clouds that has no discernible horizon. It is a place of infinte peace where everyone you loved has come to greet you. For some it is the goal, the reward, the finish line. For others it is the big lie. In my jumbled brain, it is the internal conflict that destroys me at times like these.
So if in fact the unified bunch of brain spark that was Dorothy Cook is gone forever except in the people that knew her, let me tell you about her. Dorothy was one of three children. Her sister Emma was also one of my grandmothers, albeit so as she was my mom’s adopted mother. It is complicated but those were the times (fill in your own explanations). As young girls, Emma and Dorothy lost their younger brother to the caved-in ice atop Etra Lake, not because he drowned when he broke through, but because the ice slit his throat on the way in. Such an event so early in one’s life promotes a sense of hardness and at times she could be hard. They didn’t call it tough love in my early life, but she exhibited both in equal measure.
She liked barbecued ribs from Chicken Holiday, chicken pot pie from KFC, and smoky links at our summertime cookouts. She preferred her iced tea without sugar, and so do I. She listened to Donna Fargo, Lynn Anderson and The Brothers Four. She was devoted to her friends Myrtle, Esther, and Donna Van Horne, even when it was probably best that she didn’t. Donna was headstrong and always had to top your story with an even bigger story, but Dorothy stuck with her even at Donna’s most arrogant (which wasn’t a regular attitude for her, but sometimes…) Dorothy and her husband Earl could scrap with the worst of them, but even when their relationship was at its most ragged, they loved each other. They were in it for the long haul. She was never quite the same after he had that stroke behind the wheel of his pickup truck. Four days after it, it wasn’t the stroke that killed him but the damage from the crash that followed suit. Much of her strident nature went away from her, reappearing only occasionally.
Dorothy Cook was not a perfect person. I think it was that harshness that kept me separated from her for so long. She wasn’t afraid to tell you what was wrong with you, and most people reject that. I did. But after years of feeling personal guilt and shame for not having been there for Earl, or for John, Emma’s husband, I was there as best as I could for Emma and then for Dorothy. It couldn’t make up for my grandfathers, but like I said earlier, my youth at that time was a relative thing. I should have been old enough to know better, but wasn’t, and was callow and self-absorbed. I couldn’t continue on that way.
I got to know my grandmom better than I ever thought I could. On good days at the nursing home, I gathered her up in the wheelchair and took her on long walks away from the complex. Tallwoods may be one of the best nursing homes in the nation (a claim I make wholeheartedly and with no reservations) but still, she needed to get out. I did that. She would tell me about her friends, about things she did when she was younger, and about what it means to face ugliness in truth. Life can be ugly. You have only two directions to go: either on or off, a zero or a one. Be a one.
I pray there really is a heaven and this overwhelming moment of doubt may be alleviated somehow. If I am wrong, then I hope you understand the indulgence of this long, rambling, mournful and incoherent post. I mean to infect you with the “spirit” of Dorothy Cook so that if the human soul is only the details trapped in the brains of other humans, then somehow she can live on in you. If that is the only peace I get out of this night, I hope you’ll allow it of me. If the “faithless” are right, then she is truly, completely gone, but for now I still want to believe I’m wanted and that someone’s waiting for me to come home.
With much love and sadness, I sign this one with my full name: Donald W. Dunphy, the double-minded man, son of Donald and Virginia. Grandson of Dorothy Cook.