“In the month of December, 1993, when we were just a quarter of the way into my sabbatical year in Trento, Italy, my wife Carol died very suddenly, essentially without warning, of a brain tumor. She was not yet 43, and our children, Danny and Monica, were but five and two. I was shattered in a way I could never have possibly imagined before our marriage. There had been a bright shining soul behind those eyes, and that soul had been suddenly eclipsed. The light had gone out.
What hit me by far the hardest was not my own personal loss (‘Oh, what shall I do now? Who will I turn to in moments of need? Who will I cuddle up beside at night?’) — it was Carol’s personal loss. Of course I missed her, I missed her enormously — but what troubled me much more was that I could not get over what she had lost: the chance to watch her children grow up, see their personalities develop, savor their talents, comfort them in their sad times, read them bedtime stories, sing them songs, smile at their childish jokes, paint their rooms, pencil in their heights on their closet walls, teach them to ride a bike, travel with them to other lands, expose them to other languages, get them a pet dog, meet their friends, take them skiing and skating, watch old videos together in our playroom, and on and on. All this future, once so easily taken for granted, Carol had lost in a flash, and I couldn’t deal with it.
There was a time, many months later, back in the United States, when I tried out therapy sessions for recently bereaved spouses — ‘Healing Hearts’, I think they were called — and I saw that most of the people whose mates had died were focused on their own pain, on their own loss, on what they themselves were going to do now. That, of course, was the meaning of the sessions’ name — you were supposed to heal, to get better. But how was Carol going to heal?
I truly felt as if the other people in these sessions and I were talking past each other. We didn’t have similar concerns at all! I was the only one whose mate had died when the children were tiny, and this fact seemed to make all the difference. Everything had been ripped away from Carol, and I could not stand thinking about — but I could not stop thinking about — what she’d been cheated out of. This bitter injustice to Carol was the overwhelming feeling I felt, and my friends kept on saying to me (oddly enough, in a well-meaning attempt to comfort me), ‘You can’t feel sorry for her! She’s dead! There’s no one to feel sorry for any more!’ How utterly, totally wrong this felt to me.
One day, as I gazed at a photograph of Carol taken a couple of months before her death, I looked at her face and I looked so deeply that I felt I was behind her eyes, and all at once, I found myself saying, as tears flowed, ‘That’s me! That’s me!’ And those simple words brought back many thoughts that I had had before, about the fusion of our souls into one higher-level entity, about the fact that at the core of both our souls lay our identical hopes and dreams for our children, about the notion that those hopes were not separate or distinct hopes but were just one hope, one clear thing that defined us both, that welded us together into a unit, the kind of unit I had but dimly imagined before being married and having children. I realized then that although Carol had died, that core piece of her had not died at all, but that it lived on very determinedly in my brain.”
The most moving section of Douglas R. Hofstadter’s endlessly layered and enigmatic book about the nature of self, I Am a Strange Loop.
I should mention that I first heard of Hofstadter’s work from David Brooks, who has cited this passage in several of his columns since first quoting it in “A Partnership of Minds” in July 2007. These remarks command a full page in his newest book The Road to Character.
- James Fenton hits this exact note in his poem “For Andrew Wood”
- A relevant reflection from Edmond de Goncourt’s journals