According to Brueghelwhen Icarus fellit was spring
a farmer was ploughinghis fieldthe whole pageantryof the year wasawake tinglingnear—William Carlos Williams
The April sun fools us into believing in spring, and I am buoyant, blissed out, despite the scrabbly work. Broadforking first, softening the soil that it might accept seed. Then layering in compost, some so raw it’s still stippled with mussel shells and lobster claws. Rob readies the vegetable beds while I cut back the perennial herbs, pull insurgent weeds. Toni’s here to help, too; the garden’s greedy this time of year.
Then Toni is calling me, panicked, urgent. “Something’s wrong with Rob.” He is sitting on the ground, knitting his fingers, vague and barefoot, his boots and socks a few feet away. Blood on his face, his head, his hands. His blue eyes blank, he cannot tell us anything—not what happened, not where he is, or who he is, or who we are. [End Page 125]
I have trained for this. Not this, exactly, not someone I love. But I know what to do. I tell Toni the words to say to the 911 operator, the ones I know will get the ambulance here as fast as possible. Wiping away blood to find its source, exploring gently for broken bones, cajoling Rob toward speech, toward recollection, toward Rob-ness, I am two people, living two moments. One is here, now. The other is in a tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow with my stroke-broken best friend, dearest love. And in those tomorrows, I am not afraid or angry—I am achingly, unspeakably lonely.
The cover art led me astray. Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being looked like it would be waggish; a bowler hat balances on the fingertips of a woman’s outstretched hands, the rest of her form out of view, the man to whom the hat belongs either absent or invisible. The image is jaunty, as if “lightness” is what will be paramount.
Inside instead (as Calvino has said) is “a bitter confirmation of the Ineluctable Weight of Living . . . everything we choose and value in life for its lightness soon reveals its true, unbearable weight.”
The weight of living. In 1907, Dr. Duncan MacDougall, of Haverhill, Massachusetts, began a series of experiments to determine how much the human soul weighs. He weighed both humans and dogs in the moments just before and after death. In his experiments, the people seemed to grow slightly lighter at the moment of death, but the dogs did not, a result that convinced Dr. MacDougall that the source of the weight loss must be the departure of the soul from the body. The weight of the soul, he thought, was between half an ounce and an ounce and a quarter.
Weight, it turns out, is not inherent to a body. It’s the product of mass and the force of gravity acting upon that mass. What seems heavy might be light in outer space. The draw the earth exerts upon us transforms that lightness, deflates it.
Dead weight. Adirondack chairs left overturned since last fall, rusting fire pit full of wet sludge, bags of half-frozen compost, the tub of cobbles we’ll use to [End Page 126] line the lilac bed; even the breeze coming in from the sea doesn’t rustle these stalwarts, who refuse enlivening. Only the spruce shag shudders. Were the witch hazel less protected, her thready petals would surely quiver, shiver like a fawn who has lost sight of her kin.
There is a peace in weightlessness, writes Diane Ackerman, a freedom that comes from breaking the physical bonds that hold us. We are beings inextricably anchored to the ground, who walk the earth and, in time, will become part of it. In rare moments, or in dreams, we rise above those grim restraints and joyously take flight.
Icarus soars high, his wax wings thick with feathers, each row of plumage more plush than the last. His father’s invention carries him further and further from the earth’s insistent center, away from Crete...