There are times, when, during moments of weakness, I allow myself to feel certain religious (of a specifically Catholic nature) sentiments.
Right now, I’m having that kind of a moment, while listening to Mahler’s Second Symphony (appropriately titled “Resurrection”) on Easter Sunday. This moment evokes certain feelings of longing on my part, a yearning to believe in some sort of afterlife, a need to believe that somehow our lives are not lived in vain. And all this, not because of any specific identification with Christ’s Resurrection, but something much more personal. Something, one might even say, that is the very opposite of Resurrection: namely, Death.
Approximately a month from now, my mother (may she rest in peace) will have shuffled off her mortal coil for a decade. People say that death becomes easier to accept over time, but in my experience, I’ve found the opposite to be true. Perhaps that is just because of my nature, since I tend to think over things for a very long time. And in the intervening years, I’ve thought about what my mother’s death “meant,” and each year my understanding of what it “meant” changes and deepens, but with such realization, I’ve only become more anguished, not more accepting.
Specifically, I’ve periodically engaged in a futile and ultimately speculative exercise of thinking about what she would feel if she were alive and saw what I have been doing. But why? My motives for engaging in this exercise is most likely guilt, because I feel that my mother gave her life so that I could be where I am today. She could’ve gone back to China, back to the security of her teaching job, back to the comfort of her family, when she first encountered difficulties when she came to America. But no, she decided to stay and endure, leave behind and give up an established and secure life in China, and for what? So that she can obtain legal status in America and allow me to become a naturalized citizen, so that I can have opportunities in America that I would have never had in China.
Of course I understood her motivation in a very abstract way for a while after her death, but the very concreteness of her sacrifices was first revealed to me when I got my college acceptance letters back in high school. After all, that was probably a lot of people’s first “real” signs of accomplishment at that age. I remember getting my acceptance letters to Stanford and Berkeley, and something just hit me right then: if the purpose of her sacrifice was to allow me to have such opportunities, she did not get to see them realized herself.
It was at that moment when I realized, for the first, but certainly not the last time, that no matter what I ultimately end up doing, it could not possibly match what my mother gave up for me. It’s absurd to think that something like getting into good schools, or making a shit ton of money, or anything else that I can possibly do in my lifetime, could even be remotely adequate. The phrase “I did the best I could” is incoherent in this context, because what’s “best” is nowhere near enough.
And something akin to that moment happened again this weekend. I was visiting the University of Chicago to check out their MA program, which offered me admissions for next year. I am also wait-listed for Brown’s Ph.D program, along with getting into Columbia’s MA program. I was just walking around the U of Chicago’s campus, when suddenly I realized where I was and what I did. And that question came rushing back at once: if my mother were alive, what would she think of these things? Would she have been satisfied with this?
A part of me, the part that wants to spare myself any real answers, would like to think that I did okay by her. Could I have done better? Most likely, but I’d like to think that I did alright. It’s the same part of me that would like to think that somehow my actions, however meaningless they are in the long run (and they are all meaningless in the long run), made up, if even just a tiny, miniscule part, for what she gave up for me. I’d like to think not everything she did for me was in vain, that somehow (in a way that I can’t even begin to explain coherently) that she, wherever she is, would feel that I am not a complete and total letdown.
But the other part of me thinks that no matter what I do, it can never be enough, merely be definition. The only thing that could possibly render her sacrifices meaningful would be some kind of transcendental purpose, or maybe an afterlife in which perfect justice is realized. The committed empirical naturalist in me, however, says that no such thing exists, so the conclusion must be thtat her life, no matter how meaningful I think it was, is ultimately still nothing but a purely biological process that ended a decade ago.
And on most days the committed empirical naturalist wins out, but on this day, at this particular moment, the committed empirical naturalist does not have the strength enough to endure his own conclusion.
So as Mahler’s Second Symphony moves into its fifth and last movement, as the chorus sings about everlasting life and resurrection, even the committed empirical naturalist would like to believe, if only for a moment, that somewhere there is a place, and maybe that place is called Heaven (though not necessarily the Abrahamic conception), and maybe in that place, my mother is somehow conscious and aware of what I did and am doing, and that she feels that her son’s actions, in some way, in any way, made her sacrifices even a little bit meaningful, that it was all worth a damn.