Mary Jo Egan Kilbourn
November 13, 1939 – April 5, 2017
Our elders are the past who understood the world we were born into because they lived through it. By the time we understand the world, our elders understand it less, and usually by the time they die, it is as unrecognizable and confusing to them as the world was to us when we were born. And when they die, the past does not die with them. It fades.
It fades in the slow, chemical decomposition of pigments in photographs. It fades in worn-out things requiring replacement. It fades in the uncountable moments we forgot of eating breakfast with them, shopping with them in grocery stores, phone messages from them we erased, papers from them we threw away and recycled, and the forgotten moments of normal conversations about making plans or just talking together about unremarkable things, because if they were remarkable we’d remember them.
What remains is the curated distillation of them, but it isn’t really them. It’s the remaining distillations of those that came before them, which you curate further or catalog and file as museum archives, kicking the can down the generations, plus whatever you’ve saved of them because it reminded you of happiness, or comfort, or of the bond you now share with a ghost.
You can talk to that ghost, but the ghost doesn’t really talk back. It does, but it’s what you think the ghost would say, not the ghost’s words. They’re you’re words. They’re words you tell yourself when you’re sad, or happy, or enraged, or melancholy, or joyous, or angry, or at peace, or terrified, or any of the other feelings that pass through a day like weather systems.
Some of those words are like sunshine, warm and reassuring. Others fall like branches on your head during a windstorm, leaving you concussed because the sky is falling. Then the words fade, because they always do, and all that’s left are the emotions.
Fear, anger, sadness, wistfulness, and million other emotions that vibrate in chords with a diminuendoing basso of grief that began as a siren’s ear-splitting wail. It fades sub-sonic and will punch you in the gut when it resonates in harmonic frequencies, boosting a resonant tone to where it bursts out of you in racking laughter or sobs, before fading into the background dirge echoing amongst the works and follies of all ghosts in chorus, indistinct.
It’s music you chase through deserted cities, canyons, forests, beaches, mountains, fields of sunflowers, at the dentist’s, or anywhere else you find yourself suddenly alone. With the sound seeming to be always around the next corner or bend. But you never locate the source of it because the closer you come to it, the more it fades away until you stop searching for it. Then it blindsides you in the grocery, in the car, in the shower, under the covers, on the couch, while you’re out of for a run, sitting on the toilet, or preparing dinner, making you tremble as it catches you in its net and drags you under before fading and you can struggle up for air.
Even faded, that past has weight. Each moment a grain of sand, which compresses into a slab of sandstone you carry until it, too, fades by weathering away back into sand and then dust. We carve our lives into these tablets, hoping to avoid fading, hoping some future soul will pick it up and dust it off, hoping we’ll be able to finish our lines in time.
Over time, the shape of the land changes and what was once an ocean floor becomes a mountain and the mountain becomes the ocean floor, lifted by fire and then run down by water. And the animals and the vegetables and the minerals change and require twenty questions to identify, and one day we may join them in that game, if we’re lucky.
But that’s okay. Uncountable stars, planets, galaxies, black holes, quasars, and other stuff we don’t know about yet have been born and then been fading away across the universe for billions of years and we don’t even know for certain if there are other creatures out there that have faded or will fade on those rocks or in those oceans. It’s just the nature of things. I have my suspicions though. Until and beyond when we know or never know, our fadings will ring the celestial spheres until none are left to hear.