Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat . . .We must find each other.
- Mother Theresa, Saint
Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essayist
I don't know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.
- Albert Schweitzer, Missionary
The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.
- William James, Philosopher
All real living is meeting.
- Martin Buber, Philosopher
Following the light of the sun, we left the Old World.
- Christopher Columbus, Explorer
If someone listens, or stretches out a hand, or whispers a kind word of encouragement, or attempts to understand a lonely person, extraordinary things begin to happen.
- Loretta Girzartis, Author
Nothing is more revealing than movement.
- Martha Graham, Dancer
You can't stay in your corner of the forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.
- A. A. Milne, Author (Winnie the Pooh)
They invented hugs to let people know you love them without saying anything.
- Bil Keane, Cartoonist
A good traveler is one who does not know where he is going to, and a perfect traveler does not know where he came from.
- Lin Yutang, Writer
In American life, we think we are most free when we don't need anybody. Exactly what Alzheimer's represents is absolute dependency - That's what we all need to learn - how deeply we need one another.
- Stanley Hauerwas, Professor of Theological Ethics
Memory Bridge Newsletter
10/10/08 - Memory and the Media: The Bridge at the End of 'The Road'
Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel The Road is not, like most literature and movies of its kind, set in a sci-fi future. No fancy flying machines slice across the sky, no pneumatic doors whoosh open allowing entry to clones or robots. In fact, the remnants of civilization as we know it are contemporary, even ordinary ones: shopping carts and backpacks and a few cans of food. It is this world, our world, which has become a devastated wasteland. And the novel never reveals what happened.
The nameless father, the protagonist of the story, knows more about the series of events that caused our world to collapse than we ever do. Thus, the reader finds something in common with his son, born the day everything shifted toward ruin, and too young to have any memory of the world being anything but ash-covered and desolate. From the beginning, the reader occupies a de-historied position. The world has changed in its entirety, and now, to read on, is to inhabit an absurd, "cauterized" landscape--only sparsely dotted with instances of familiarity--and to have very little idea how all of this came to be. Perhaps the only readers who might recognize something about the bleak road the man and his boy are traveling down are the readers who have gazed into the eyes of someone with advanced Alzheimer's disease. The Road and the road ahead are bleak and unfamiliar. But by the end of the book, every reader has "glassed the horizon" and gotten a glimpse--not just of the emptiness and terror, but of the bridge.
Ironically enough, it is the child in the story (a boy of about ten) who has no memory of the past. And it is his father who is at a loss to resurrect it for him: "He could not construct for the child's pleasure the world he'd lost without constructing the loss as well." The disparity between their experiences of the world is perhaps most poignant (and darkly comic) when the man finds a can of Coca-Cola in an otherwise ransacked overturned vending machine. As the man offers it to the boy, the boy asks twice, "What is it?" The man urges him to accept the treat and drink it all, from which the boy deduces, "It's because I won't ever get to drink another one, isn't it?" For the man, memory is not only fading, but becoming irrelevant because he cannot share it with the boy. The Coca-Cola is a sweet, but ultimately a fleeting and singular artifact from the old world, never to be revisited again.
Man and boy are, in a sense, unmoored from Time. The man has long ago forgotten to count the boy's birthdays. There are no seasons by which to catalogue life and growth. When the boy asks his father about what happens "later," the father gently corrects him and says: "This is later." There is no future and no past, yet they struggle to stay alive and make their journey south. Deprived of the metaphor of time, they are also deprived of the metaphor of the journey. In this story, a journey even of this magnitude will not result in transformation or change. And with the absence of these metaphors, along with "most of what has made them human--memory and color and the names of things"--two questions that pertain equally to the narrative and to our experience with AD arise: 1) why keep talking? and 2) why keep going? (from Ron Charles' review in the Washington Post). The novel offers compelling answers to both questions.
Why would you continue to communicate with someone who seemingly has no understanding of the richness and variety that life once held? For the man and his boy, their dialogue is the only salve to the psychological wounds that are inflicted daily as they fight to survive. Even when their discourse is frustrating or frustrated, it is the human contact which provides comfort. In fact, at one point in the novel when the boy stops talking to the man, the man says, "You have to talk to me." The exactness of the dialogue conveys the urgency in the appeal. We understand very early on in the novel that, without the boy's companionship, the man will die: "The boy was all that stood between him and death." McCarthy's observation carries in it, however, a dangerous ambiguity. Is it a good thing that the boy keeps the man alive? As Ron Charles in the Washington Post put it, "The fear of dying, so prevalent in McCarthy's previous novels, is balanced here by the fear of surviving." Living on without our memories as companions or without human companions who have shared those memories with us represents the greatest fears we have of Alzheimer's disease. Man and boy, facing these fears, keep going partly because they keep talking--even when a very limited understanding is possible.
Even with no shared culture between them (because the collapsed world does not support civilization and, therefore, any kind of culture), and with the death of familiar metaphors, the man and boy do not give up; instead, they are called upon to invent new metaphors. The father tells the son that they are "carrying the fire," that they are "the good guys." At the end of the novel, the father, who has been sick all along, dies. The boy speaks to him one final time to tell him, "I'll talk to you every day.... And I won't forget. No matter what." The connection between father and son has perhaps always been a connection between alien worlds; it is no surprise the communication will continue between this world and the next.
The final paragraph of the novel offers this vision of the world before:
"Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow.... On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery."
Even though his father is now dead, this knowledge and memory of the world prevails, as though, despite its seemingly utter impossibility, the father has managed to transmit an image of life and fertility to his son amidst the dust and death. Here is the power of communication and perseverance. Even in an ashen landscape devoid of memory and metaphor and organic mystery, our voices are bridges stretching across the insurmountable. At the end of The Road, there is redemption: after his father's death, the boy encounters a man and a woman who are also "carrying the fire" and who vow to protect him. At the end of any road, there is a bridge.