In the news the other day, there was a story about a woman in her 70s who, suffering from increasingly debilitating dementia, determined to take her own life, on her own terms, before she became unable to care for herself or recognize her family. I read the article and was moved by her story, and then, particularly, by the part where her daughter spoke. Realizing that the time had come, this woman called her children home for a last weekend together and her daughter told how the two of them went for a walk together, their last walk together. ‘All you have to do is be yourself,’ the woman told her daughter, and now her daughter will hang on to those words, that gift, for the rest of her life.

A few days later, I heard on the radio a quote from James Foley’s mother, saying that he had spent his life doing what he felt was just and needed; he had chosen to live his life in order to try to improve the lives of others and she hoped his efforts were not in vain. She was proud of him, proud of the risks he took, and hoped his example would teach others, hoped his life – and his death – would make a difference.

On my commute home from work, I listened to a podcast interview with Colm Tóibin about his latest book The Testament of Mary. The interviewer asked him about the part in the book where Mary decides it wasn’t worth it. She asked Tóibin what he meant, did he mean humanity wasn’t worth the sacrifice Jesus made? Yes, he said, that was part of it, but also, what sacrifice could be worth your child’s life? Was the saving of humanity worth – to Mary – the loss of her child? Could anything be?

My little girl, my dear dead daughter, I never taught you a thing. I never gave you a single gift, material or otherwise. I never knew who you were, who you might become. I could not reflect on your death and say what was sacrificed or whether that sacrifice was for a greater good. I agree with Tóibin’s Mary – no sacrifice is worth it – but in your case, there was not even a sacrifice to fall back on: there is just nothing. I wish I’d known our last time together was our last time together. I wish I had been able to set you on your journey with some words to guide and soothe you, to let you know you were, above all, loved unconditionally. I wish I could say with some certainty that there is something that lives because you died, that there was not reason for your death, but at least meaning in what came after. To me, though, it is all unreasonable. It is all nothingness. You are not here and I don’t know where you are. You are not here and I never knew who you were. You are not here and you left me – silent – without any words.

I imagine us walking together, alone, in a field of tall grass and wildflowers. We are holding hands. ‘All you have to do is be yourself,’ I say. And you let go of my hand, skip off ahead of me, without looking once over your shoulder to see if I am following.

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