Marcus Aurelius was an imaginative guy. He liked to daydream terrible things: turns of fortune so sour he would quail against them to his core. Running these simulations and getting a whiff of those feelings he considered a kind of annealing, whereby his heart would be trained to be hard in the event of the imagined thing ever actually coming to pass and raining on his real life parade.
As an emperor of a major civilization, the tone of his Wikipedia page counted on his ability to be guided by reason and equanimity in the face of upset.
In the spirit of that habit I, simple story-wallah, am forced now to imagine how things might go if I didn’t have a wife anymore, because the other day I very nearly didn’t. She flipped her car three times nose-over-tail, leaving the highway by somersaulting between two telephone poles and coming to a rest a farmer’s field. The vehicle was destroyed, but she was not.
But she might’ve been.
I have to think about it. Old Aurelius was right. If her body had been irretrievably randomized the hours and days following would’ve called for a level of decisiveness and steadiness from me impossible if I were busy falling to pieces, rending my garments and shaking fists at clouds at so on. After all, the children would still need lunch.
So that’s what I like to think of the face of potential tragedy: what we might have for lunch. While it’s true that in some worst case scenarios meals are summarily cancelled, in the vast majority of situations lunch is still going to have to happen one way or another. And the boy is very picky lately so it’s not like that’s a cakewalk under ideal circumstances, either.
If my wife had died I’d have probably made something simple, like grilled cheese sandwiches or tuna salad with celery. The boy would drink tomato juice and the girl a glass of milk. I’d insist that the police let me go right away, so I could tend to that. The children would’ve been at home alone, just down the street and oblivious that their mother’s brief errand had become open-ended.
I wouldn’t tell them on an empty stomach, and I probably wouldn’t tell them on a full stomach, either. Like with swimming, you want to give the food a chance to settle before you tell kids their mom is gone forever.
They might have wanted to see her one last time, but that might not necessarily been feasible; had the accident gone differently, it is likely that her body would’ve been subjected to extreme stresses – kinetic energy pouring in along conflicting vectors, compression as the cabin deformed, slicing from debris, and so on. If she were a mess I’m not sure I’d want the children to have that as their doggie-bag image.
On the other hand, if she had no signs of physical trauma I’d not sure I’d want them to see that, either. Couldn’t it seem like a cheat? Like a kind of cruel joke? It might seem as if she could wake up if she wanted to, but she’s denying them that for reasons unfathomable.
The children didn’t get a chance to see their dying great-grandmother. My wife and I went, though, with my brother and his girlfriend. My cousin was reading magazines in the livingroom while small, energy-efficient machines watched over my grandma in the bedroom. They were plugged into a beige extension cord. She pretty much seemed dead already, but warmer. The eyes jiggled a bit. She didn’t have anything to say because she was flying on morphine. She was alive purely out of habit.
Dead things are creepy. That’s a basic life lesson. But the kids have already learned that one because we keep pet cats and we live next to a rural road.
The unthinkable has to be thought about sometimes, lest one be caught unprepared if it is thrust upon ’em. Also, because it can inspire appreciation for what you haven’t lost. We thoughtlessly accelerate such previous cargo to such high speeds, fate predicted by cold actuarial tables. Once something like that goes wrong there’s no backsies.
She lived. We hug. What a day.