April 27, 2011


The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry (William Sydney Porter) is a short story about a young married couple so poor that on their first Christmas together, each of them makes a sacrifice to provide a gift for the other. The wife cuts off her long hair to obtain enough money to buy her husband a chain for his beloved pocket watch. Unaware of her sacrifice, the husband sells that watch to buy tortoise shell combs for her hair. Both gestures prove to be futile though performed out of love. 

My thoughts turned to this story and the feeling of futility it suggested when I read someone’s comment on Facebook a short time ago:

“The problem with being dead is that you exist in a universe only through the language of the living. You become the property of who ever paints your portrait.  You don’t get to talk back. You don’t get to argue… “(L. P.  4/7/2011).

(courtesy: BingImages)

The statement highlighted two thoughts at once. The first was to remind me of the power of language to frame our world and our memories. The second was to acknowledge the sense of futility a person feels when a loved one is lost. One struggles to preserve the memory, of course, but do the dead care how they are remembered? Living through the language of others is, I suspect, as meaningless to them as owning a chain for a pocket watch one no longer possesses or keeping a pair of tortoise shell combs when one’s hair is bobbed. 

Useless or not, the living do mourn and struggle to keep the image of a lost loved one alive through the stories told about them. Perhaps we imagine our words send a beacon to those we’ve lost to a dark place. Some cultures believe this is true.

As for me, I doubt the dead will know what we say of them. And yet, remembering is not futile. Among the living, even strangers will read or hear words like those written above and feel the pain of the bereaved. That hallow is a kind of intimation of immortality.