Earth The End of a Family, The End of the World
“What is the average life span of a species? Of a family?”
It’s not the announcement of the divorce, but the divorce’s quiet affirmations. The first was calling home—five, six rings, then a new voice on the answering machine. Gone are the names of my sisters, the mention of “the Goodrich household,” my father’s Californian drawl. My mother opts for terseness (“please leave a message”) but it sounds like defeat. I blab the usual to her answering machine—“our” would be too familial a pronoun, though it’s the same black box I grew up apologizing into after staying out too late. I only half hope I convince her I didn’t notice the change.
The second was arriving home for spring break, then for summer vacation, then for Thanksgiving. Instead of a tender “it’s good to be home” hug, all I can offer is an embrace of resignation. Can a son’s touch impart “forget that asshole,” “why didn’t you try harder,” “this house is too big for you,” and “I’m sorry I didn’t call more” all at once? Can he do it while catching a surreptitious glance at his mother’s ring finger?
The third was the gradual eradication of photographs. Like ghosts receding into the walls of the house my parents are failing to sell, more black-and-white vignettes disappeared with every return home. The wedding photos, especially. Dad no longer smiles as his no-longer mother-in-law plants a kiss on Thea, the no-longer infant. Instead, a Matisse facsimile adorns the hallway between the toilet and my bedroom. I’d rather the wall remain bare.
The fourth is navigating which name to choose when reserving a table at the Good News Café. My mother kept her surname when she married—she even imparted it to me, as my middle name—but for some reason, she tells the hostess we’re the Goodriches. Maybe she was trying to dampen the awkwardness for me and my little sister, but I don’t think any of us felt like Goodriches that day. Hayley and I were treating Mom to dinner, partly to celebrate her birthday, partly to erase the context around this particular Wednesday. Mom had been to court early that morning to finalize the divorce paperwork. As of her fifty-ninth birthday, my mother is officially single.
My family has never had much respect for the calendar. I learned Dad was moving out of our New England home, back to California, on Christmas Day, 2013. Thea was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes on her twenty-first birthday. “The show must go on,” my father said during those announcements of celebration-cum-consolation, leaving me to wonder if this was a tragedy or a comedy or both.
The fact that my parents’ relationship has not changed much says more about their marriage than it does about their divorce. Dad is gone now, but he wasn’t home much toward the end anyway. He still makes semi-regular trips to Connecticut “to see the kids” during this or that holiday, but now he sleeps in the guest room next to his old office. Not that I think my parents had really slept together for years. (A side effect of watching my parents’ marriage collapse was a concern about their sex life that would have been repulsive to my pubescent self.) Apart from the rare, sheepish text Dad sends his ex-wife asking to use her baking raisins for a salad, my parents get along as they always have—they get along.
I am twenty-two years old (no diabetes, yet) and I belong to a make-believe family. I suppose any combination of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, and anything in between must become make-believe eventually, sometime after the kids move out and sometime before they settle down. Mine’s no different, except, maybe, in terms of timing: I am not the product of divorce, but neither will my children ever go to Granny and Grandpop’s.
What is the average life span of a species? Of a family? Eschatological extinction ought to bring perspective to conjugal conflict—heated arguments, boiling tempers, global warming. But a divorce is a hurricane in metaphor only, never reaching the miles-per-hour borne of accidental shifts in stratospheric pressure.
Accidental? Can we forgive molecules so easily? Released from their earthly bond, carbon atoms don’t follow some moral light to the heavens. They rocket free from responsibility upon the moment of combustion, a burst of energy gathered over millennia. We cannot hold molecules accountable. (What about the molecules of my father?) The atoms that fuel a yacht and a wood stove share a profound indifference.
It’s human carbon we can take responsibility for—the organic matter not in our souls, but in our hearts and blood. Freedom once bubbled between hints of hydrogen and sprinkles of oxygen, making mine a chemistry of compounds I can call my own. We are all walking carbohydrates who can find humor in that prospect, which maybe makes us something else entirely. A part of nature and apart from it.
The universe, with its billowing chaos of carbon atoms, isn’t accidental. We are. If existence is the organic exception, what is the rule? I’m not sure it’s disorder and divorce. We are the unintended works of Shakespeare produced from molecular monkeying around. At least there were typewriters to predate us.
Life and death, existence and oblivion, are the twin destinies of geologic infinity. Every vagary of the laws of physics teems with life, just as our biology tends toward death. Such is the fate of assorted randomness. We force time to abide in lines—first Triassic, then Jurassic; once Holocene, now Anthropocene—but Euclidean progress doesn’t capture the swirl of time settling out, like dust disturbed by the universe. Our hope, as ever, depends on perspective: Are we the mote, or the universe? Both, I think, at the same time.
And as combusted carbon specks soar to heaven, sealing our geologic fate, our own carbon isn’t so lucky. Organic bonds—more fraternal than covalent—break of their own accord. Biology’s beauty lies in its brief exceptionalism, facing decomposition, not conflagration. Carbon always returns, earth to heaven, dust to dust, one way or another. But us, we sums, we are trapped down here. We are trapped and decaying.
It’s 10:00 p.m. on a Tuesday night in a demure Connecticut suburb. My sisters, mother, and I sit on red velvet couches. Dad reclines, pointedly, on the floor. We’re doing make-believe family things. We’re pretending, most of all, that we’re the family on the television, the family we were on 6/17/98, according to the screen’s white Tetris numerals. Do all parents watch home videos the day before finalizing divorce? Do all children hope that Mom and Dad will remember what it’s like to love their spouse by virtue of watching themselves when they did? (I don’t ask my sisters.)
It’s 10:00 p.m. on a Tuesday night, and as my family tries to convince itself that it still exists, all I can think about is William Wordsworth. Blame it on my liberal arts education, or the gene for intellectualizing one’s way out of crisis, but I repeat a line that pierced my soul as a sophomore in college: “woods decaying, never to be decayed.” It’s from The Prelude , and maybe it’s about the dynamic stasis of some Alpine ecosystem, but right now it captures the Goodrich family at its terminus, gazing at the Goodrich family at its genesis.
There I am, five years old, ignoring my mother’s request to be “delicate” on the play set. I wriggle from her grasp, squealing, and get away with it, but only because she is tending to Hayley, rosy acolyte to my puckish demon. My little sister clambers up the wooden rungs with the deliberation of a toddler who only knows how to walk in pantomime. From behind the camera, Mom intones, “Okay, Matthew, you can slide down when your sister gets up there,” but my delighted shriek betrays me.
The play set still stands today. We built it next to a cherry tree, whose leaves used to tantalize me—a Sisyphus on the swings. A series of bad storms took the tree down a few years back, but mercifully left the play set intact. The swings have been rotting in the backyard ever since. Childhood isn’t gone when you stop sliding into wood chips. It’s gone when those wood chips have disintegrated.
Or is it gone when you see your mother in a hospital cot? We spent Thanksgiving 2008 in the ICU. Thea and I had been in the Dominican Republic, building a house with the humanitarian nonprofit Dad founded. On the way back from JFK, he got a phone call. Mom had suffered an “episode” that morning. She collapsed just as Hayley was about to get on the school bus. I think she lost control of everything that day—her nervous system, her family, her marriage.
What are children supposed to do when confronted with their parents’ mortality? The limp platitudes of condolence never registered with me. All I could do was decide the feeble body in the cot was not my mother. I wasn’t really there in the hospital, and neither was she. When Dad asked why I hadn’t gone up to hug her, she excused my shame. “This is hard on him.”
It was multiple sclerosis. Sterile, medical words: autoimmune, degenerative, incurable, treatable. I don’t remember there being a family history of the disease. My mom’s carbon just stopped working, her neurons decaying.
A few years earlier, when I was still young enough to be sheltered from mortality, Dad had been diagnosed with lymphoma. He was always the more positive one of my parents: California sunshine, not New England rain. He wanted to improve the world with the decade he had left. He would be gone a lot, on ever more international builds. I think he found a purpose, and it didn’t require a wife. My mother’s body attacked her while my father’s body attacked him. Then they destroyed each other.
And here they are, watching home movies at 10:00 p.m. on a Tuesday night. Decaying, never to be decayed.
All death is death by carbon. But it’s not just organic matter that decomposes. The entirety of Western history is, for Martin Heidegger, a history of decay. Once, the gods gazed upon humanity, opening our being to the stellar mystery of existence. Now, skyscrapers obscure starry nights and cell phones out-chirp spring peepers. We no longer hear the whisper of eternity.
Heidegger died in 1976, more than a decade after President Johnson issued a warning to Congress about rampant carbon pollution and atmospheric warming. But their apocalypse is not mine. Damocles had upgraded from sword to thermonuclear missile sometime in the 1930s. My parents’ generational challenge wasn’t atoms collecting in the atmosphere, but what a man in a room could do with a single one of them. Split a nucleus, there goes New York City. Split another, there goes Moscow. Back then, decay was radioactive. Mutually assured destruction meant the world was ending every day.
Did they really think “duck and cover” would be enough?
Do we really think a carbon tax will be?
Climate change lacks the urgency of nuclear incineration. It lacks Manichean moralism and enemy Soviets. But a postmodern crisis is still a crisis. There will come a time when hope feels as irresponsible as despair, warheads or no.
For Heidegger, our existential decay brought on the horrors of the twentieth century. Our way of relating to the world—the insurrection of our technological worldview forcing beings to appear as objects for our use—consumed everything: the natural before us, the heavenly above us, the humanity within us. This is our inheritance. God is dead by forceps and scalpels. Creation lies vivisected. Human beings have been cut into and our souls have been extracted as capital. Our cores now rot away at us until we hardly recognize each other. By Heidegger’s time, we didn’t need to: Death at the touch of a button turns lives into numbers.
Climate change—death in slow motion—is now the inevitable consequence of our outlook on the world. We avoided one mutually assured destruction and await another. The Earth no longer appears to us at all. Instead, we have reduced its scale, from planetary to ordinary. The more we expect of our atoms, the more steeply we climb out of life’s primordial churn.
But as the Earth warms, we discover the world pushing back against representation. Brought on by our own folly yet wholly transcendent of it, climate change is both ours—a molded, morbid work of art—and not ours—a moment of inorganic reckoning. It could shock us into a gentler way of experiencing existence, if the shock doesn’t kill us first.
The next person I know to die could be Mom or Dad. Their mortality hangs over me, a more personal climate change. The chronic shadows of illness, equally from cancer and motor-neuron decay, impend like cumulonimbus clouds. Another episode, or a bad flu, and I will lie awake at 2:00 a.m., inconsolable. Wallace Stevens wrote that “death is the mother of beauty,” but my mother’s death won’t be beautiful. It will be slow and painful, like my father’s, like the death of their marriage, like the death of humanity wiped off the Earth by uncaring carbon.
As the invulnerability of my parents slips away, so does their stature. (So does a sepia version of myself.) Our chemistry is the same—stardust in our bones. The trappings of divorce, the abandonment and surrender, the guilt and the shame, reveal as much as they conceal. We are not merely mortal, not merely flawed. I am now left with the relief of a new possibility.
In the quiet affirmations that none of us were meant to last grow also tender moments of connection. Finitude isn’t much to eternity, but a few more minutes can make the difference to us, on red velvet couches, in uncomfortable hospital cots, inside the poetry of chemistry. Precious seconds spark life. We are not decayed, not hopeless—not yet.