This article is excerpted from With or Without Me: A Memoir of Losing and Finding.
A bare white nave, clearly built in the fifties. The ceilings are high, with lamps hanging from long brown cables. Everything around me is a blur. It’s Easter, one year after Dad’s death. Not exactly one year to the day, actually, but he died the morning of Easter Sunday. And now it’s the morning of Easter Sunday once again, the same exact time, the hour of Dad’s death. The congregation is singing “Christ Is Arisen,” and I’m fighting the urge to throw up because I’m beyond drunk. Everything around me is spinning. As I exhale through my nose I smell the vodka I was downing all night, until just two hours ago, as I staggered through the woods by our house, all alone.
My brother had come home from boarding school the night before. I was glad to have him home. We hugged in the doorway for a long time, until he let go, a little embarrassed. Then he said that one of our old friends from back when we were scouts had told him that someone was having a cookout today. He wanted to go, and wanted to know if I would come too. I didn’t want to at first.
“C’mon, Esther,” he said, patting my cheeks with both hands. Then he put his right arm around my shoulders, pulled me in close, and whispered right into my face, “Your father, my child! Your father would have very much wanted you to go to this cookout with your brother tonight. Come now, kiddo – do it for Dad!” We laughed.
On the way, he cracked open a bottle of beer with his lighter, and we shared it. We walked along the edge of the forest, and the pungent smell of wild garlic growing among the trees prickled our noses. The sun was low. The ground was muddy. Johannes told me stories from boarding school, and kept bursting into laughter while telling me about two of his classmates, who with their overdressed snobbishness and insane opinions actually belonged in jail, we agreed, except that they were so brilliant and so broken, so touchingly childlike and so messed up. I was so glad Johannes was back.
Our old friends were sitting outside a garage about a twenty-minute walk from our house. We got drunk pretty quick. Johannes wanted to head home sometime around one thirty in the morning, and wanted me to go with him. He was tired from the trip. I didn’t want to go yet. Slurring a bit, he instructed one of his friends to bring me home later. Before staggering off, he turned around again, “Remember, we’re going to Easter Mass with Mom tomorrow morning at six. You can’t crash here. Don’t forget, okay?”
“Mh-hmm,” I said, staying put. I can’t even remember why. When I’m drunk, I just don’t want it to stop.
One of the guys seated in front of the garage drifted off in his chair, his torso still almost vertical, his chin sinking into the collar of his jacket, still holding a beer bottle in his lap with both hands. I was toying with the tongs, prodding and poking at the ashes on the grill. I don’t remember what time it was, or how long I sat there, letting my buzz clear up a little.
Just as I was leaving, the guy in the chair came to and slurred, “Wait, Esther, I’ll take you.”
I slurred back, “Nah. You sleep. I’m good.” And I left, with an open bottle of cheap vodka still in my hand. I hurried across the courtyard in front of the garage, headed along the slightly uphill road, and then took a right, turning into the big black tunnel of trees that formed a huge gateway of sorts, so high that an eighteen-wheeler could’ve driven through. Although I knew the forest well, and also knew that just a few yards down the road there was a barrier to keep cars out, I still banged my hip right into it in the dark. At first I just leaned there for a while, a little stunned, and then I took another sip. I couldn’t decide whether to slide underneath, or climb over it. I was too lazy and drunk for either. Vodka in hand, I groped my way along the barrier, listening to the hollow, scraping sound of the glass against the iron. As I reached the end of the barrier the bottle clinked against the heavy, box-like concrete counterweight. The high-pitched sound tickled my ears, and then everything was quiet. The forest was silent. I walked around the end of the barrier, and after a few yards I took a left, off into the dark forest. I drank some more vodka. I knew there was a trail somewhere out here.
I remember seeing the blurry moon behind the black branches every time I stumbled and looked up. When you drink, your view grows so narrow. And I remember thinking that I could draw those black curtains further down over my eyes – my view was already pretty obscured to the right and left, up and down – and make it even narrower with each sip.
The bottle made a little sound against my lips – phloop – each time I took a sip. Otherwise, it was silent. Not an animal stirred, not a single bird startled, no owls called. Not even the whirr of a passing car could be heard up here, although its lights shone on the trees at the forest’s edge.
Was I even on the path?
Leaves of wild garlic stuck to my shoes, and slid off again. The tree trunks stayed hidden in the dark – only when you got too close did they rear up, all rigid and proud and in your face. I stopped, held on to a branch, and tapped my feet around, searching for solid ground.
I looked around. The sky was dark. I squinted. The underbrush was black. I listened to the night, took a step, heard a sudden crack. Then silence. And then it came: the word “free.”
My head was foggy, but I agreed. I swayed, took a sip, paused again. “Free,” something whispered, and I nodded, the way drunks nod – not gingerly, as if I were wondering, but simply because my neck couldn’t hold my head up anymore. My chin slumped forward, my eyes closed. “Yeah,” I thought, and then, with a jerk, my head swung up again, trying to regain its balance, while still reeling. And although I could no longer say whether it came before or during all this, I remember exactly how the feeling came over me. It was something like liberation, like salvation. In some ineffably beautiful way, something ceased mattering. Like it was all the same. I staggered onward, and at one point I fell to my knees. My pants soaked up the moisture from the mud and pressed into my knees like a wet kiss from some big, soft, cold snout. Slimy, rotten leaves stuck to my hands. I had to laugh. I got up again, took a few more steps, and that feeling of redemption spread over me – just like when, all at once, every tense muscle in your body suddenly relaxes at the same time.
“That’s it. It’s over now.” All that inner nagging, all that fighting against my own foolishness – it just melted away. I was finally able to give up the battle over my own headspace, and it was like a deep exhalation that didn’t stop. It just kept pouring and pouring out of me. Suddenly I was free of all that Christian clutter, all the humanistic humdrum that forces you to take life seriously and follow made-up rules. I was free of everything I was taught in school, some of which society has agreed upon, and some of which you just follow because you know that, if you don’t, you’ll be punished. Things society has agreed to without knowing why in the first place. All that talk of dignity – human dignity. Nonsense. Just another superstitious belief. Where exactly is this dignity? Where’s mine?
We humans are free because we carry no weight. That’s what became clear to me. Nobody can force me to believe that we have innate dignity. Go ahead and tell children all those myths – I don’t believe in them. And I don’t believe in the inherent worth of this world. It, too, shall pass. Everybody says so.
But it didn’t matter what they said, because my “yes” was directed at that absolute fact, not at the theoreticians. And my “yes” had no end. My mouth stayed open, and the air that might have otherwise blown me up flowed with a salutary hiss. My ribs let out a sigh as they relaxed, my diaphragm let go, my legs no longer hurt, my arms weren’t heavy anymore, my throat didn’t have to hold anything in, and my eyes didn’t tear up squinting for an answer.
At some point, the world will be no more. There will be no more consciousness. Dead silence will encompass the universe; there won’t be any more inquisitive eyes searching for answers, and there won’t be any humans asking for meaning. The stars will quietly orbit one another. No more thoughts to be thought, no more astonishment, no more asking “Why?” Just dead silence. Because there won’t be anyone there to keep asking.
And then the cosmos will no longer be called cosmos; the moon will no longer have a name. Darkness is no longer darkness if no eye is waiting for the light. And now we’re racing straight toward boredom, the barren wasteland, and death.
Earth and all of humanity, having blossomed like a cactus that only blooms once, will collapse in on itself, and no one will know anything about it.
No eye will have seen it. No moral system will prevail, good and evil will have disappeared, and the universe will be redeemed from moaning and groaning, from breathing and gasping, from whimpering and laughter. From all the noise that was here. There will be silence.
This judgment-free silence – the same silence that will reign when this world is no more – is precisely the silence through which I received this new freedom that night. For those who discover this silence within – those who notice that it has already sunk deep into themselves – this freedom will suddenly unfold and grow, from then until the day when the last human being has died, and the last spirit has been extinguished. And it will continue even after that.
This freedom is joy. It wipes away all tears, because death is no more – only rocks and gases, and suns set on their courses. Those who discover it come to see at long last that there is no need to struggle or strive. They can laugh at the gossip in their villages, their cities, the entire world. They are free of all anxiety about fads, fashions, and supposed authorities, and they have real comfort to offer those who suffer. “This, too, shall pass. Everything passes.”
They can close their eyes amid the noise of the present, and the world falls away. Supermarkets topple, hospitals crumble, bombs fall into bottomless pits, friends’ calls grow quieter, and children’s wishes and old people’s prayers and hatred and love are all brought down together. The bonds between brothers and sisters loosen, all worldly worries are let go, and everything grows quieter and smaller and falls farther and farther – deep down, to where no more sounds emerge. Down to where nothing matters. Down into the silence that will one day come for the whole earth.
Those who discover the freedom of this silence within themselves no longer have to fight, and they no longer have to love. Nothingness puts a smile on their faces, the same smile we know from the faces of the dead, from those released from existence. You can attain this sort of smile already here in this life, if only you are aware of the clues, and follow them.
I was free! And so I let things go, and became lighter and lighter, and ran faster and faster and – strangely – more and more happily, through the forest. You don’t have to break love’s neck to make it stop squawking. You can simply set it down, exposed in the light of the coming downfall of the world, and then you won’t hear it anymore. It will become as quiet as the murmur of generations upon generations, and will disappear along with them.
I drank and drank. The curtain closed tighter around my eyes, and I hoped that when I sobered up I’d be able to remember this feeling. I hoped it would stay. No, actually, I can’t really describe it. I didn’t really care either way. I thought: the way things are right now is just how they are. Whether I think about it, whether I remember it or not, whether I believe it or not. This is how it is. I’m free.
I lit a cigarette and downed the rest of the vodka. Then I tossed the bottle, heard it hit the ground behind me, and staggered on, bending as I wove under and around the branches. And then, making my way through the last bit of forest, it hit me: Dad. I slowed down and realized, stunned: it’s all the same to me – everything, including Dad’s death.
At this very moment last year, Mom must have been sitting at his bedside. A year ago right now, she had been by his side, praying.
And yet, it was all the same to me. I didn’t care, and that was such a relief. Oh God, was that a relief! It didn’t matter; it was all so much dog crap. Fuck the dead. Let ’em all go. Everything will come to an end eventually anyway.
I sighed, happy. Everything was over. It was as if a hammer had fallen.
“Finally,” I groaned, drawing the cold air into my lungs, closing my eyes in the dark forest, and exhaling again. “I don’t care. I so don’t care.”
Somehow I still managed to make my way home that night. Johannes woke me up the following morning. He was horrified I still hadn’t gotten up when he came to my room. He must’ve come by earlier too. I got up, still in the same clothes from the night before. There were leaves in my hair and my boots. I still had everything on. I went downstairs. Mom looked at me and said, “You slept in your clothes? Good Lord, Esther,” then grabbed the keys and her coat, and walked out.
There was the traditional Easter bonfire in front of the church, but I have zero memory of it – just as I have zero memory of walking into the church, or whether the candles were lit. But feeling nauseated, trying to focus on the blurred floor tiles between the kneeler and the seat in front of me – all that I remember. I remember trying to hold my nausea back, and freezing. And I remember thinking that just now, this very moment, was the hour of Dad’s death, and that all of his friends who were thinking of him last year at this time were here at Mass right now.
I tilt my head back, and suck the air in through my open mouth. I can’t stand how the strange, spicy incense sticks to my dry tongue. I stand up with the congregation, but have to sit right back down. Mom and Steffi are sitting two places away, Johannes is right next to me. Are they mourning? I don’t know. I can’t mourn anymore. The priest, in white, goes from blurry to sharp to blurry again.
I wipe the sweat from my forehead. The congregation kneels. I don’t. Not out of protest, but simply because I can’t. My head goes from hot to cold, burning and throbbing. I reek. I can’t do it anymore.
It’s only been a year.
And I can’t take it anymore.
How many more years will it take?
The night in the forest – its message to me – was right on. It doesn’t matter. But now the sparkle, the shine of that feeling is gone. It didn’t matter, and it still doesn’t matter, but I’m still alive, even though it doesn’t matter. And I just don’t want to do it anymore.
The bells ring for consecration, and the white host is held high.
I want to puke. I want to spew out my life. “Leave me alone,” I say to myself, almost pleading. “Leave me alone, just leave me be, I can’t stand myself anymore.”
And for the first time I experience the despair that comes when you realize that you cannot erase yourself. You have to just endure your own existence. That is your duty, laid on you even though you never asked for it.
That was the consequence of me really believing that after death comes nothing. When you believe that, you don’t smile anymore. You don’t take it to a talk show. When you believe that, you don’t want to convert others. You can’t enlighten anyone by saying, “After death, that’s it, the end,” because you don’t even really care about that.
No lightning struck in the years following Dad’s death. No voice rumbled forth in thunder. No hot coals burned my tongue, no Christ came to me in a dream, no sea parted, no pillar of fire appeared, and no wind whispered. There was no choir of angels, not even a lone angel, nor was my name called by God. There was nothing. God was silent.
And I will never forget that silence. Today, I sometimes think that there is a power in his silence –a power we cannot even imagine.
When I sat at Grandma’s bedside and the closets gawked at me, when the wind bent the branches of the chestnut tree outside but no sound penetrated the glass, when Grandma’s breath seemed to confirm the fact that there was nothing else here, and all the objects in the room – the feather bed, the curtains, the desk, and even my skin – seemed to grow heavier and denser, as the nothing grew bigger and bigger around me – God must have conquered it in his own way. It certainly wasn’t me. I was no longer fighting. I had lost my name, and with it, reality. Without those things, there is no fight.
And yet, there nevertheless was a victory. If it was silent in those rooms – unbearably silent – God was even more silent. I may have fallen silent within during the years following that night in the forest. At least for several years after that, I remembered only external events, hardly anything internal, and might have fallen silent for good. There were no more questions directed inward, no more hatred whispering within. But God must have been even quieter than all that. His power must lie in this silence. His silence seems implacable compared to the silence of the world. His silence is merciless compared to death. It pushes nothingness to the point of bursting. His battlefield knows no noise, for it is always silence, death, graves, and nothingness. And he didn’t head for the underworld brandishing a sword, waving a flag, or shouting – but with closed eyes, a pale mouth, and no heartbeat. God subverts silence. There must be a power there we do not understand.