On The Particularity of Death, Life, and Fiction
My sister died two weeks ago. We have just returned home from her funeral. In October, she began to feel tired. By January, she was dead of an aggressive cancer that shrugged aside all attempts at chemotherapy. She was 63. She leaves a husband, three children, a daughter-in-law, and three stunned siblings.
There is nothing new to say about death. There is nothing new to say about witnessing the unexpected death of someone close to you. It is the oldest of stories. Countless others died on the day of her death; countless others fell ill in the days of her illness. In Turkey, thousands died without warning in an earthquake. In Ukraine, hundreds have died from missiles they never heard coming. God only knows how many died around the world from cancers just as aggressive, and from countless other causes. Yet my sister’s death is particular to me.
My sister was a lover of poetry, something she learned from our father. Like him, she could quote great swaths of verse from memory. One of my father’s particular favorites were the Lucy poems of William Wordsworth, particularly, She dwelt among the untrodden ways:
She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:
A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
—Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.
She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!
My sister was not a violet by a mossy stone, nor did she live unknown, and judging by the number of people attending her funeral, there were many people both to praise and to love her. But that last line, which was one that my father always praised most particularly, captures the particularity of death.
Oh, the difference to me. A very particular difference.
And a particular difference, no doubt, to all those close to the so many souls who died on the same day she died. Because it is the particularity of each death that moves us, just as it is the particularity of each life that we remember.
If Stalin did say that one death was a tragedy but a million deaths were a statistic, he may have been callous, but he was not wrong. There is no particularity in a million deaths. But every individual death is particular to someone.
I was asked to read the first reading at my sister’s funeral mass. It was a passage on early death from the fourth chapter of the book of Wisdom.
But the righteous man, though he die early, will be at rest.
For old age is not honored for length of time,
nor measured by number of years;
but understanding is gray hair for men,
and a blameless life is ripe old age.
It is an apt passage. My sister was the healthiest of us all. She was a black belt in karate and ran an hour every day. Sixty-three would have been considered a ripe old age indeed in the time that the Book of Wisdom was written, but it certainly is not today. Thus it was not only the shock of loss that we, her family, suffered but the shock of mortality. She died unseasonably young.
To hear the health advice with which we are so constantly bombarded today, one could easily think that for each mile you run, for each piece of fruit you eat, you add five minutes to the span of your life, and for each donut you eat, each glass of wine you drink, you subtract six. But it’s not like that at all. It is more like a hideous lottery in which the last thing you want is to draw the winning ticket. Every donut and every glass of wine is one more ticket you hold; every mile run and apple eaten is one you get to give back. But it is still a lottery. My sister, beyond doubt, held far fewer tickets than I do. Still, it was her number that was called, not mine. Such is the particularity of our lives, and of our deaths.
Our lives are particular from our beginning to our end. There are among us certain levelers for whom it is intolerable that anyone should ever have more than another, be happier than another, be more accepted or regarded or honored than another. They are willing to impose the most awful tyrannies in their Procrustean quest to make every life the same. They dwell in the realms of abstraction and statistics, but if they gave the slightest thought to the true particularity of life, to the unfathomable depth of the particularity of every individual life, they would see that their cause is quite in vain.
There can be no equity, contrived or otherwise, between parents with healthy children and those who watch their children suffer with mental or physical anguish. There can be no equity between those born with health and strength and those born sick and weak. But the distinction runs much finer than that. There can be no equity between those born into a house filled with music and those born into a house filled with books, or into a house with neither; between those with one sibling and those with none, or three or seven; between first born, last born, and middle child; between the children of youthful parents and those of the aged; between those born by the sea, or up a mountain, or in a desert, or on a farm; between those who meet the teacher who sees and develops their particular gifts and those who never do. All of these unavoidable particularities shape our lives in particular and ineluctable ways.
Thirty-five years ago, I lost my job at a small magazine in Nova Scotia, packed up my car, and drove to Ottawa because my sister was living there. I slept on my sister’s couch while I looked for a job and a place to live. A temp agency sent me to one of the many association offices in that town for a two-week assignment. That is where I met my wife. But my sister would not have been in Ottawa at all had she not been working part-time in the bus station cafeteria in Kingston, Ontario, while she finished her MA in English. That is where she met her husband, who lived in Ottawa. Had she got a job somewhere else, neither of us would have met or married the people we did. And this, of course, is true of everybody. The smallest things swing the courses of our lives in vast ways that become apparent to us only years later. Our lives are shaped in particular ways by particular trivialities and coincidences.
By some untraceable particularity of circumstance my sister was stricken with cancer, and I was not. Man plans, they say, and God laughs. But it is the particularity of life we should notice here, not simply its randomness, for it is its particularity that gives every life its unique flavor and perhaps also its unique value.
Our attempts to understand and explain human life tend to lose its most important characteristic, its wonderful and tragic particularity. Particularity disappears into averages and income brackets and age ranges. I did a life expectancy test recently that said my life expectancy is 86. But, as the test itself acknowledges, this does not mean that I will die at 86. It means only that men like me, of my age and circumstances, who answered the questions the same way, more or less, on average, die at 86. I could die tomorrow or at 103. So could any other man in my cohort. My chances of dying at 86 are actually pretty slim compared to all the other ages I could die at.
I wish I did know when I would die. I could spend more money if I knew. But my life is more particular than that. I have to prepare for the possibility that I might live to 99, and that means I can’t spend now the money I might need then.
But I don’t know. I don’t know any more than my sister knew that she would only live to 63. What would she have done differently had she known? I don’t know. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps everything. But it is part of the particularity of our lives that we don’t know when they will end, and thus we have to plan everything we do without this most essential piece of information.
We can neither understand nor plan our lives with statistics or generalizations. Our lives will be particular, willy-nilly. And this is why fiction matters to us. Fiction addresses the particularity of our lives in a way that no sociological study or political platform ever can.
And this is why the first duty of the novelist is to be particular. It is not to give some message that could better have been expressed in an essay, because an essay will always, must always, generalize human experience. There is great value in that generalization, for only generalization can be translated to policy. Particularity is too particular for that. But the generalization loses all that makes life piquant and particular.
By inventing particular lives, novelists give us a picture of life as it is actually lived and experienced. And in doing so, they remind us that our lives will never be governed or shaped by statistics and averages. Life is an ambush predator. Life is a surprise party. Life is a penny found on the sidewalk. Life is a cliff that crumbles beneath our feet. Every character that stands out for us from literature – Sam Weller, Falstaff, Lizzy Bennet, Uriah Heap, Mack the bum from Cannery Row, Sebastian Flyte, Anne Shirley – insert your own list here – stands out for their particularity. They represent nothing. They are no average and no type. They are their unique and particular selves. They carry no message except this, that life is infinitely particular, and when all the messages and policies and averages have blurred into mud, the individuality and particularity of life will remain with us unto our individual and particular ends.
My sister’s in her grave, and O, the difference to me.
I recently read a fantasy novel in which dragons have this one gift: When they are born, they see the moment of their death. And because of that, everything changes. They live with recklessness, knowing that the army beating down the door right now won't kill them. They can spend their retirement funds, because they know.
I wish we had that. But I also know it would make us more like dragons. Perhaps it's a good thing we don't.
There's very little that can be said. But I offer it anyway. My deepest condolences on your loss.
I'm sure your sister would be touched by your tribute to her. Losing someone is always difficult.