Insights on Memory and Mortality from Sven Birkerts

Five insights on memory and mortality from two essays by Sven Birkerts about his parents’ last years: “The Ongoing Vigil” and “Remembrance.” This is one of my Sunday spirit posts, less concerned with entrepreneurship than what is means to be human.

Sven BirkertsInsights on Memory and Mortality
from Sven Birkerts

I came across a quote by Sven Birkerts, “The feeling of being just a breath ahead of calamity.  Growing up means moving ever more deeply into the awareness of contingency. Former ignorance was bliss.” It led me to two essays he wrote about his parents’ last years and the process of cleaning out his parents apartment: “The Ongoing Vigil” and “Remembrance.” This blog post has five excerpts that I thought offered some signifcant insights into memory and mortality.

A Shadow of a Shadow

“I’ve taken boxes and boxes from my mother’s apartment. Photograph albums are easy enough to shelve to be looked at some time in the future. But everything else, all the things long forgotten, that had receded into some original inertia—any one of them is now liable to come alive for me. Her things and his. This hammer was the hammer that my father kept in the fold-top Schlitz beer carton with his other tools. I picked it up the other day to hang some pictures—it was the weight in the hand that flashed me right back. I see the box and I can very nearly rejoin myself standing there in the hallway closet.

These blink-of-an-eye occasions have two simultaneous effects. One is the immediate recollection—the closet, my sense of standing there. But right along with that comes the realization, ever repeated, that that past is gone and my parents are gone. After which—like a shadow of a shadow—comes the obvious extrapolation that everything else has been carried away, too. Where is the boy who was sent to bring the hammer to his father?”

Sven Birkerts in The Ongoing Vigil (Dec-15-2021)

It’s a strange sensation to visit places in your memory that you cannot return to. They are simultaneously real and departed. I can remember waking up in college and even in my late 20’s, lying in bed with my eyes still closed and imagining that I was back in the house I grew up in. I spent ten days in the hospital in 2011 with a leg infection and I remember the sheer joy of returning to the familiar smells of my home, awakening the next morning to birdsong instead of the strange noises of the hospital room and a nurse tightening a rubber strap around my forearm as she prepared to draw a blood sample.

Character plays a determining role

“It’s never just the simple recognition that my mother and father are no more, of course. Both deaths are recent enough that the difficulties of their last years, their physical decline, are still with me, part of the same visitation. But there is another simple truth to be considered. Parents are a kind of advance party in the scheme of things. Going first, they provide so much reality for their children to contemplate, and this can be profound, especially for those of us who were there to witness their last years. We take in and deeply absorb what it means to get old, and then to be old. That was such a profound education for me—the daily first-hand view of what happens in those later years, and how much character plays a determining role.”

Sven Birkerts in The Ongoing Vigil (Dec-15-2021)

I would talk to my parents every week but I did not visit home in the last fifteen years of their life as I had developed a fear of flying after getting caught in a very bad thunderstorm on the tarmac in St. Louis. The fact that the plane was not moving–the tower would not not allowed it to take off–seemed to exacerbate my claustrophobia. In some ways I feel fortunate that both of my parents died from heart attacks at home. They were able to pass quickly in familiar surroundings.

A row of white boxes, each was filled with things he no longer had to do or worry about

“There are so many moments I have held on to. A key one is his recounting of a dream during one visit. He found himself, he said, in a bright open room, where everything was white, almost blindingly white. Against one wall was a row of white boxes of different sizes. He saw them there and he knew right off—each was filled with things he no longer had to do or worry about. He felt as if a great burden had been lifted from him. He was radiant with the news. He lived on a few months more, with increasing physical problems, but it was agreed that he would not go back to the hospital or rehab. At the end, in the last days, he was in the care of hospice workers. To me, it seemed that he was living now in the wake of that dream he’d had. He had the ease, even in decline, of someone who has set aside the heavy weights he had been carrying and was finally able to walk unencumbered.”

Sven Birkerts in The Ongoing Vigil (Dec-15-2021)

Sven Birkerts Sunset PhotoI had a good friend, Mark Duncan, who had developed a slow-growing cancer that led him to visit the Kaiser infusion clinic periodically for chemotherapy. He was a warm and generous man I met in 2004 because we were both attending meetings at the joint participation in the Software Development Forum. I later invited him to be a presenter at both the SDForum Marketing Special Interest Group and at a Bootstrapper Breakfast. He and I collaborated on a well-received article, “the entrepreneur’s guide to sales,” and I would see him for lunch every 3-6 weeks or so. Due to Mark’s wide-ranging interests and his ability to spot trends early and explain complex topics, I learned a lot about many topics, including commuter rail, the microbiome, cloud computing, and fault-tolerant computing clearly.

At one of our lunches around 2014, he mentioned that he was on a first-name basis with most of the nurses in the Kaiser infusion clinic. He said, “it’s really nice to be able to walk into a place and know people by their first name and have them know mine. On the other hand, it’s the infusion clinic which is where people with cancer or persistent infections go for treatment, so as much as I enjoy it I would prefer never having to set foot in it again.” He had a matter-of-fact way of looking at the world that was direct and empathetic.

In 2017 he developed a brain infection. In our second to last conversation in December 2017, I asked him what he felt his prognosis was. He said, “it’s a virus that a healthy immune system will fight off, so my hope is that I can get my immune system rebooted and at least arrest it where it is. Of course, I have also entered hospice because aside from hope, there are no recognized treatments.” At the time, I thought his odds were good of finding a way to stall the virus or trigger a remission, if only because he was so direct and low-key about it.

In our last conversation, his condition had advanced, and his speech was difficult to understand, but we spent the time talking about his days and what my children and grandchildren were up to. His spirits were good, and it was as if we were talking on a bad cell phone connection, but deciding to persevere because it was not clear a re-dial would be any clearer. He passed away on Dec-23-2017.

Que Sera, Sera

I recently had a flash of my mother in my grandparents’ old kitchen. She is singing “Que Será, Será.” I have no memory of my mother ever singing alone, so I’m thinking now that she was probably chiming in with Doris Day on the radio. […] My mother is standing on the other side of the kitchen table, my grandmother somewhere by the sink, and picturing the moment, I am very aware of the dark gap of the open kitchen door behind my mother. Is she really singing, or have I just embellished what was playing on the radio? It’s the words that matter. When I was just a little girl, I asked my mother, “What will I be? Will I be happy?” There by her side, listening, I was suddenly pierced by a sadness I had never felt before—a time-filled sorrow about all things passing and perishing. I imagined a future from which, looking back, all of us, and everything in the room, would be gone.”

Sven Birkerts in “Remembrance“(Apr-11-2022)

I think one way to deal with the “sorrow about all things passing and perishing”  comes from Achaan Chaa’s observation that “the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious” from Mark Epstein’s Thoughts Without a Thinker:

“You see this goblet?

For me, this glass is already broken.

I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it.

But when I put this glass on a shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’

But when I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”

Mark Epstein’s Thoughts Without a Thinker (pages 80-81)

Like a puzzle suddenly shaken back into its box

“Some months after my mother died, my sister and brother and I set about cleaning out her apartment, setting aside what we would donate, and deciding what each of us wanted for ourselves. Such a shift in perspective to look on things this way. A possession, something for so long integrated into a person’s life, suddenly becomes an object to be dealt with, accounted for. Each one had been part of my mother’s life, and they could not really be assessed separately. Yet they had to be. The decorated plates, the glass prism, the paintings and framed photos, the box of earrings and brooches, the vases, even the blanket she covered herself with when she sat in her recliner. Just like that, the order of her living was gone, each thing abruptly stripped of its context, like a puzzle suddenly shaken back into its box, each piece holding just a trace of what had been the whole.”

Sven Birkerts in “Remembrance” (Apr-11-2022)

The death of a parent forces us to confront our own mortality. I can remember my grandmother, my father’s mother, passing away in 1965 when he was 40, and she was 73. He told me later that he was surprised it took him more than a year to get over it. When I worked at Cisco after the dotcom crash, my boss called me and said our entire group was “on the bubble.” The higher-ups were trying to decide whether we should all be laid off with the thousands of others who were now encouraged to “have a nice day…elsewhere.” I was shocked. How could they get along without us? I was right because we survived, but it shook me badly.

But the reality is that we all have to prepare for our departure, doing our best to equip the next generation to pick up the torch and move forward. So far, my preparations consist of a drafting playlist for my funeral and starting the process of divesting myself of comics I collected 30 years ago. And to continue to assist entrepreneurs to the best of my ability.

“The mature man lives quietly, does good privately, assumes personal responsibility for his actions, treats others with friendliness and courtesy, finds mischief boring and keeps out of it. Without this hidden conspiracy of good will,  society would not endure an hour.”
Kenneth Rexroth

About Sven Birkerts

Sven Birkerts (@SvenBirkerts) is coeditor of AGNI, a magazine A literary magazine named after the Vedic fire-god for the writer in witness, the imagination in combustion. Birkerts is the author of ten books; he has taught writing at Harvard University, Emerson College, Amherst College, Mt. Holyoke College, and the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars, which he directed for ten years. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts.

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Image Credits:

  • “Sven Birkerts” by Arrowsmith Press
  • “Sunset” by Sven Birkerts, used with permission

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