University of Baltimore Asst. Prof. and Bohemian Rhapsody Columnist Marion Winik returns from a tragic funeral with a heavy heart and hectic mind.
There was nothing that could be done, said the policeman at her door to my friend Nancy last Sunday. By this he meant, your 20-year-old daughter died in a traffic accident on her way to work at the mall this morning. Are you here alone? he asked. Is there someone I can call to come over? That was all she needed to hear. She ran across the street and collapsed on the neighbor’s kitchen floor.
A strange thing has happened to me in the last few weeks. In the middle of the night I wake up with a word on my mind, usually a long, unusual word whose meaning I don’t know, and I repeat it in my head for hours, ever more blearily and mechanically. The first time it was epithelial. Then it was perseverate, which I’d heard used a couple of times lately. I took it to mean the same thing as persevere or persist, and I wondered why there was a need for such a word. Was it just a fancy academic version? Perseverate, perseverate, I repeated.
After the moment when nothing could be done came an avalanche of doing. People sent messages and placed phone calls and made crock-pots of chili and bought boxes of scones. They pushed furniture against the wall. They put forks and spoons in plastic cups. People filled prescriptions and booked air tickets and went through photographs. They went to buy tissues, they ran to retrieve forgotten tissues, they pulled white tissues like doves from the box. News items, an obituary, a song, a poem, sympathy notes, internet posts and eulogies: most were written with difficulty and hesitation. Some conducted official investigations, delivered flowers, printed programs, prepared the body. Some had to wait until the hurricane moved on to make their way to Pittsburgh. Some tried to find an explanation or a cause. They didn’t get far.
My second husband the philosopher often used arcane words as part of his normal vocabulary. One of the most frequently heard was autonomic, which seemed to mean about the same thing as automatic. It probably led to my incorrect assumption about perseverate.
There is nothing new to be said, but all the old things must be repeated. Like all the signs you have to drive past on the highway every time you go from here to there. I have heard them and I have said them many times. A mother who loses her child is never the same person again. It is grievous, but it is as non-negotiable as the death itself. Unlike the death, it makes sense. It is what you would expect.
When my daughter Jane and I got into Pittsburgh the night before the service, I hoped we would stay with Nancy but there was no room. We ended up in the rambling, comfortable home of a banker and a psychologist, and had a drink in their den when we got back from the viewing. We discussed the chances of our getting a good night’s sleep, and I mentioned my trouble with the words.
“Hey,” I asked, “do you know, is perseverate the same thing as persevere?”
The psychologist explained that it is something much more specific. Perseveration is the exact repetition of a phrase or action–a type of behavior common in autistic people, in fact just what I was doing when I uncontrollably repeated the word “perseverate” in my head. It can also refer to controlled reiteration: “To ensure the accuracy of his or her data, the scientist necessarily perseverates, repeating each experiment many times and comparing the results.”
Tess’s sisters said, She was the most beautiful one of us. Her friends said, She was the best, the kindest. A carousel of pictures flashed in the background, almost anesthetic in their loveliness. So many smiles. So much golden hair. I did not mean to write this essay. It is autonomic. It is perseveration. It’s like Nancy’s learning-disabled nephew who found her crying in the foyer at the reception. He frowned. He said no. He said goodbye. And then he frowned. He said no. He said goodbye.
Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl.