Essay by Scott Neuffer
The Screen Door
Summer of 2018, and I’m standing in front of the screen door of my grandparents’ farm house in Townsend, Montana. I open and shut it. I know the sound deep in my brain, in the nerves of my heart. It creaks as it swings out. Then a whistle. A whooshing bang as it slams shut. I’ve heard the sound a thousand times—when I was a kid and my grandfather would leave to irrigate early in the mornings: creak, whistle, bang. When I was a kid and my parents would go for walks after dinner, bang, bang, leaving my siblings alone in the Montana night, terrified of what could happen without parents. Summer of 2018, I’m thirty-six, back to visit one last time before the farm is sold, and I realize I’m never going to hear this door again. I’m never going to open it to see the fields, the deer grazing, and the mountains beyond, where elk bugle, grouse boom in the pines, and a few remaining grizzlies scrape out an existence. The door slams shut—bang—and some sense of finality clicks into place, leaving an air of sadness. My grandfather is dead. Bang. Never again.
People who believe in God believe what’s lost can be restored. They imagine it, their departed loved ones walking again. And that’s enough, conceiving it, to make the leap of faith toward belief, certainty.
I’ve often said I believe in the idea of God rather than God himself. I acknowledge our ability to conceive of the infinite, to glimpse eternity when we open our minds with thought and feeling. But it’s not enough, is it? To imagine it? We yearn for the tangible reality, my grandfather walking through the screen door. And the disparity between our subjective ideas and the objective world precipitates the ache that makes us human.
We are human precisely because of this ache, this longing. In everything we intuit the mortal, the entropic forces of time. Beauty is both forgetting and remembering, all at once. We appreciate the flower knowing it will fade—its sweet scent, its silky touch, the way it opens to the sun like a smiling face. We imagine molecules strewn across the fabric of time and wonder when they’ll reform. When will the flower reappear? When we die, how long until we become conscious lifeforms again? Does our love survive death? Will I find you in some distant field of stars? For now I ache thinking of the screen door, thinking of thinking of the screen door yet feeling gravity pull me back down to Earth. Bang. Gone. Never again. The weight of knowing. It’s almost as if our tears are meant to lubricate this lugubrious machinery, to keep us going.
Atheist philosopher Slavoj Zizek sees Christ’s crying out on the cross as the moment he comes into his own and accepts his mortality. Father, why have you forsaken me? he cries out. And in this acknowledgement he is fulfilled. The deep finality clicks into place. He is at peace with fate.
That the story of Christ became a legend of resurrection shows the audacity of the human spirit. A defiance, an assertion in the face of death. We can live forever, it says. Fuck you, death. Yet we still cry for those lost. The ache doesn’t go away, despite our best stories. It’s 2015, and I’m standing beside a parapet overlooking the Pacific in Lima, Peru. I smell the brine of the ocean washing ashore. My wife is inside the nearby church, receiving condolences from family and friends. Her father lies in an open casket, surrounded by flowers. “Papa,” she whispers as she touches the casket. Her tears are salty and iridescent, like the sea. I imagine how the wetness on her cheeks shimmers in the light. I am outside with our four-year-old son because he needed a break. He doesn’t know about death, how real it is. He could just take off right there, spread his arms and fly out over the ocean, unencumbered as he is. I will be the one to console my wife throughout the night, as her new knowledge sinks in. I will take the weight of it in my arms.
What if we need both? What if we need to acknowledge death, to feel that separation, but also to imagine another possibility? What if we need contradiction? What if the play between our beliefs and our doubts is what actually propels us forward? What if God is merely the universe lingering, figuring its way forward? Creak, whistle, bang. Never again, I assert, because I need the hurt to ground me, to make my life real and my time here precious. But that sound. Does it echo through the cosmos? Creak, whistle, bang. Never again, again, never again, again. You’re hearing it now, the way the door closes. Our stories outlive us, despite our losses.
My grandfather was a doctor, a farmer, a thinker and a reader. He settled in Montana because he thought he could do some good in that rural county. I could list all the great things he did. Instead I imagine him after his stroke, sitting in a chair in my aunt’s house in Utah. He couldn’t talk much. He seemed sullen in the consciousness of his new debility. Naturally he was upset that his mind had failed. He’d been so brilliant. It must have seemed like an unfair punishment.
I could list all the ways my grandfather was still normal after his stroke, but that would belittle the seriousness of his condition, the reality of physical decline. I want to say that he endured, sometimes with a grin, sometimes with a frown. I want to say that he had dignity in those last days.
It’s a beautiful word, dignity. It’s from the Latin “dignus,” or worthy. We use it to describe our worthiness in the face of death. We are worthy of life. We are worthy of all this. I don’t know what my grandfather was thinking near the end, but I know he knew beauty. He was a man of beauty. He knew both the mortal and immortal. His mind was of the universe, its ebb and flow, its maddening paradoxes and sublime harmonies. I like to think that before his heart gave out, he was thinking of his fields, where he spent his days irrigating hay. I like to think that even when our minds break, we can still feel the tissue of the living on our hands, the breath of those we love, the warmth of the sun.
It’s summer and I’m standing in front of his screen door for the last time. I’ll never hear it again, at least not in this life. Creak, whistle, bang. The sound reverberates. I stand and endure it, my eyes wet and blurry, my ears ringing. The way I walk to the car, where my wife and kids are waiting, shows something of dignity. I’m not skipping along, but I’m walking nonetheless. I’m worthy of this sadness.
Scott Neuffer—author of RANGE OF LIGHT (forthcoming) and SCARS OF THE NEW ORDER—is a writer, journalist, poet, and musician who lives in Nevada with his family. His work has appeared in Nevada Magazine, Foreword Reviews, Underground Voices, Construction Literary Magazine, Shelf Awareness, Entropy Magazine, Wilderness House Literary Review, Gone Lawn, and elsewhere. He’s also the founder and editor of the literary journal Trampset. His indie rock music is available on Apple Music and Spotify. Follow him on Twitter @scottneuffer @sneuffermusic @trampset