I’ll have another post up in a day or two updating you all on what’s been going on (Tea House success, studio, thesis, etc.) but for now you’ll have to make do with this. This is the written piece for the second 9700F exhibit (www.9700f.com), this time based on the sense of sound. It’s going to be a really cool exhibit, so if you’re in Charlotte come by and see it. This piece is titled “Come Now David, Where’s Everybody Going?”
One night a few weeks ago I spent the night with my grandmother in her nursing home room because we weren’t sure how long she was going to live. Everyone else had stayed with her in the nights before, so it was my turn and they were home sleeping. I sat right next to the TV so I could hear it but keep it low enough that my grandma could sleep, and I needed some noise besides the mechanical breathing and bubbling of her oxygen machine. Her breathing was shallow enough it was silent, and the TV was drowning out the sound of my own breath, so the only sounds in the room were inhuman ones. After I turned the TV off I sat there with her for a while before I fell asleep; it’s a strange and totally helpless feeling to be with a dying person when you’re not a doctor.
Three days later she died, and when I got to the nursing home the rest of my family was already there. My grandmother’s body was lying in her bed, and the oxygen machine had been turned off. The five of us, my parents, my grandpa, my grandmother’s body, and I sat in the room and didn’t say anything for long periods at a time. During one of the long minutes of silence, my grandpa said, “It’s so quiet in here that I can hear the clock ticking,” and I noticed he was right. I’d never heard the wall clock ticking in that room before because there was always some other kind of noise overpowering it. Most recently, the oxygen machine and Saturday night college football. Before that, my family talking as we sat with my grandma. Still before that, my grandma talking and watching the Food Channel. I didn’t even know the clock made a sound when it ticked off the seconds. But sitting in the silence of a family death, the clock was the only sound in the room unless the nurses came in to see us.
I know it’s kind of a tired comparison between life and the passage of time, but I wonder if we surround ourselves with sound so that we don’t hear the clock ticking. Do we scramble to make conversation because the silence is so unnerving and it reminds us of our own aging and frailty? Do we have the television on in the background because we don’t want to hear ghosts breathing down our necks? Do we fill our ears with music because without it we can hear our own breathing, each time counting one off our lessening allotted number? Do we forego silence and contemplation because we don’t want to be faced with our greatest fears?
I read a story once about a city that became completely silent one day before regaining sound, then becoming silent again, then sound, then silence, then sound, and so on, each period becoming shorter or longer in a seemingly random order. The people of the city quickly grew impatient with the silence because it was so strange and deeply frightening. The short story, though, goes to talk about how the city also grew impatient with the noisy times because they learned in the silence to slow down, to spend time with their families, and to let themselves be overcome by peacefulness.
I wonder about silence: I wonder if we understand what it means and how it can give us the chance to breathe deeply, to hear unexpected sounds, and to spend time with loved ones and become a kind of caretaker as we smooth their hair and tell them they don’t have to fight anymore and if they want to go home to Jesus it’s okay. I wonder if we unwisely surround ourselves with sound so that we don’t hear the seconds slip away, each one carrying us closer to our own turn to die in a nursing home bed, when our families will gather and in the silence and grief make remarks of wonder that they can hear the clock ticking.
Thanks for reading this blog.