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The Meaning of the Word “Gone”

September 6th, 2005

This has been a tough couple of weeks all around. The end of Summer and the beginning of Fall has been difficult for my family for many years. Our father and one of my sister’s children died suddenly – years apart, but both on the day before school started. This year is particularly hard, since we’re all still mourning our mother, who died in January. She was always low this time of year, and now the rest of us are even lower. Then, on top of it all, comes Hurricane Katrina, and thousands of people who have lost everything.

When my father died, I was nineteen, and I remember thinking that until someone you love dies, you don’t really know the meaning of the word “gone”. It means more than just physical absence; it’s a hole in the universe. The entire world you knew is sucked into it, andyou come out the other end to find yourself on an entirely different planet. No matter how much you hate it, you’re going to have to live there for the rest of your life.

So you do the best you can, like it or not, to build a new life, because what else can you do? And you do build a life, and you’re even happy again, eventually. But nothing is ever the same again.

Years ago, I was a department head at a university library while a new wing was being built on the building. My departmental offices and reading room was to be relocated to the new wing, but my very large, closed, special collection of books was to stay in the old building. (A “closed” collection, for the uninitiated, means that the public is not allowed into the book stacks. You have to look up what you want in the catalog, and the staff person goes and retrieves it for you. And, yes, it’s a pain.) The idea was that they would knock a door in the wall between the old and new sections, providing us access to our books.

Then, one fine day, the director called me in and told me that there wasn’t enough money left to put in the door. so we were going to be left with our offices and a reading room in one building and the books in another and no way to get from one to another without a ten minute trip from hither to yon. This was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that I sat in the director’s office watching the walls melt, feeling like I had Dali to the left of me and Kafka to the right, stuck in the middle again. After a long, passionate discussion, he promised to reconsider (ya think?), but when I left his office, I was so frustrated and wrung out that I went back into the stacks and burst into tears.

Naturally, one of my colleages stumbled across me, and alarmed, asked me what was wrong. I babbled out the door story, and he listened sympathetically. There was absolutely nothing he could do to help me, so after standing there helplessly for a minute, he clapped me on the back and said, “Well, have a nice day,” and left. It was so absurd that I laughed.

The Great Door Incident was only rediculous, not tragic, but I mention it because of what that colleage did for me. He listened to me and sympathized, and even though he was really helpless, he made me laugh. He didn’t change the situation, but he gave me strength.

By the way, I did get the door. However, the world with all those lost loved ones in it is gone forever, and we survivors are still trying to make a home on this new planet.

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