Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The River of Un-knowing

In the classic Greek myth, Eurydice dies twice. Once on her wedding day when she is bitten by an adder, and again just as she is about to be released from the underworld to rejoin her grieving husband. Orpheus charms Hades and Cerberus with his music in order procure his wife's freedom, but Eurydice is returned the underworld when Orpheus defies the prohibition against looking back at her as she follows him to the land of the living. Eurydice cries out when she steps on a thorn, and when Orpheus turns, it is their final parting.

In the Sarah Ruhl play,"Eurydice," which I saw at my favorite theater company on Sunday, Eurydice's return to the underworld is  no accident.  She causes Orpheus to turn around when she calls out to him for no apparent reason, presumably so she can return to her father whom she has become reacquainted with in the afterlife. She chooses death over life or, perhaps, in a moment of panic, chooses the familiar over the unfamiliar. It is the mandatory dipping in the river between this life and the next that causes the dead to forget the living and much of what they knew above ground. "Hold your breath," Eurydice's father advises her as they discuss her possible return. He himself has maintained the ability to read and to speak the language of the living. If Eurydice forgets too much, she will not remember him, just as she barely remembers Orpheus.

Living with my mother, I often feel that she is standing in the river of un-knowing. Certain words escape her. Sometimes, near dinnertime when her tongue is wearing its fuzzy martini overcoat, and my ears are full of wine, it seems that we are speaking two different languages. Like Eurydice, she can no longer  accomplish the tasks that came easily in life. Eurydice who once loved books and ideas, no longer knows how to read, and does not even recognize a book. My mother, who was once a devoted cook, now pares an apple with a bread knife and struggles to open a box of crackers.

Eurydice, in Ruhl's play, is lured to her first death with the promise of a letter from her deceased father. For years, my mother has had nighttime visitations from my long-dead father, from her dead brothers and sisters. They stand at the foot of her bed and talk to her, she says. When she first told me of these gatherings, I was afraid that they were calling her to them. Perhaps they are, and in the wee hours of each morning, she chooses to step from the river back on to dry land, still remembering most of what she needs to get through life. Volition, as in Eurydice's return to the underworld, no doubt has its role in the timing of our exit from this life--or so we like to think in this age when where we so esteem control. But maybe sometimes, even though our heads are full of love songs, we are simply fated to an encounter that will kill us.

What interests me most right now is the river. What it washes away. What we manage to cling to as it rushes by. What seems gone forever and then reappears swirling at our feet. Greek mythology implies that it is too painful to leave this life without dipping into the river of forgetfulness. The dead are thus required to forget, while it is our job--the job of the living--to remember.


Elizabeth said...

I took a writing class once on Archetypes and it was fascinating to learn that nearly everything we do or think -- nearly all of history -- can be distilled down into these archetypes. It's comforting to me -- and sometimes terrifying -- that there might be a collective unconscious, too, that dreams are common, that our brains are vastly different but also quite similar.

You've got me thinking again --

Ms. Moon said...

Wow. This is just an amazing post. Those ancient Greeks really had it going on, didn't they?
I seem to be following Elizabeth around on the blogworld today and her comments are always so pertinent, so thoughtful. I feel so lucky to be a part of this community. And your post today is a very good example of why that is.
You know what I hope for your mother? That one night when her visitors are there, she simply follows them across that river, peacefully and with ease.

Ms. Moon said...

P.S. I would wish that for all of us.

Mel said...

I have forgotten so much of the Greek mythology I learned in college, but this story fascinates me, so I must get reacquainted. You write so lovingly and perceptively of your mother's journey, and I am saddened to see my own mother travelling this path. It is a heartbreak to witness, the frailty of old age, and it is a comfort to think of those family members gathering to welcome them.
Such a beautiful post, thank you.

Allison said...

This was an amazing post. I would just second what Elizabeth and Ms Moon said.

Taxmom said...

De-lurking to say this is an amazing post. One could expand this image to say we all have this river swirling in our consciousness somewhere...maybe some nights we creep closer so it comes into view.102 eptaBu

Andrea said...

My older brother Bruce, who died many years ago when he was 19, came to help my younger brother, Michael, who died only a few years ago when he was 63, when it was time for Michael to make that journey. Michael was of course the only one who could see Bruce sitting in the room with him, a loving presence. "Don't you see him?" he'd ask his visitors. But no, they didn't.
What do we know for sure, really? Myth helps us sort out this strange being human thing. I so appreciate how beautifully and lovingly you've written about it here. Thank you.