The Sense of an Ending?*
I’m sitting alone in the bedroom of my boyhood. Where, forty years ago, I solved algebra problems while listening to the Allman Brothers do their thing at Fillmore East. Little knowing what lay ahead: that I’d forget everything I ever learned about algebra and English romantic poetry. That my favorite musicians would spend the next four decades playing the same songs over and over again. That the magic would drain out of the familiar places of my childhood: Ice Plant Hill, the Trestle, Sinquefield’s, Omaha Springs, Ganga’s, the River, Kelly’s Pool.
Except for my achy mother, who is stretched out on a sofa downstairs in an effort to get comfortable enough to sleep, the house is empty. From seven inhabitants, back in the day, to just one now. I hear the rise and fall of voices from her television. She’s left it on all night, hoping it would lull her to sleep.
Outside, the light comes up. Another morning.
Yesterday, as I worked in the yard, I mused on toads. When I was a child — I’m not kidding — the yard was full of toads. And birds, there were so many birds. Every summer was Insect Jamboree: swarms of gnats all day long, giving way to vicious mosquitoes in the early evening, giving way to constellations of lightning bugs at night:
And children. Riding their bikes in twos and threes. Roaming the woods. Getting up to no good. Geniuses at hatching plans to vanquish boredom.
What can I say? All gone, and that’s the awful truth of it. Even the bugs.
From across the street yesterday, I watched my aunt, my father’s sister, park her car and go into the post office on Broad Street. I watched as she labored up each step. The same woman who, not so terribly long ago, could put one foot in a stirrup, swing herself up onto her horse, and gallop off. Or spend an entire afternoon working in her vegetable garden. Or lift a good-sized toddler into her arms at the daycare center she used to manage.
Now, let me say that I’ve spent most of my life reading about people who lived and died two millennia ago. I know, for example, that there came a time when the Roman Forum, the site of Julius Caesar’s funeral and Cicero’s thunderous speeches against Mark Antony, became mere pasture for cattle.
I’m acutely aware, therefore, of ephemerality. Of contingency. Cognizant of the fact that this world has witnessed so many great upheavals — inescapable plagues, orphan-making wars, exploding volcanoes that turned summers into winters — which must have seemed to the people of those times to herald the end of everything.
And so I have to admit that no one knows what the future holds. It’s natural, moreover, as we age, to contrast the “good old days” with the present and become all gloomy and doom-y.
Still, I wonder. Billions of people now, not just tens or hundreds of millions. It’s not quite the same, is it? Extinctions. Doomsday weapons.
Here’s the surprise, though. None of that fills me with foreboding. Not 24/7, anyway. There’s that thought experiment: what would you do with your last day, if you knew that the world would end the next?
Plant a tree, maybe. What about mobilizing to prevent a climate-change denier from destroying an environmental protection agency? You could care for your aging parents. Write a poem. Tell someone that you love him or her. Go for a hike! Refill your bird-feeder. Smile at a stranger.
What do you say? Shall we?
*With apologies to novelist Julian Barnes.