The Mathematics of Loss

I have a minor fascination with numbers and number sequences and riddles about numbers.   One of my favorite number riddles is known as Zeno’s paradox.   Take two points on any number line, and then halve the distance, and then halve that distance (½,¼ ,1/8  … ) and you can go on to infinity.  In other words, there are an infinite number of measurements between one and two inches, for example.  Yet we can see by looking at a ruler that there is a finite space, one inch, between the two points.  How can this be?  What are the implications?  Who cares? 

Unfortunately, it is a sad turn of events that has me thinking about Zeno’s paradox tonight.  I think I am beginning to understand how the infinite can exist within the finite.

My Father, Larry Gourdoux, passed away today.

This morning, about a quarter to ten, between his daily routine of morning coffee and “dinner” (his term for what most of us refer to as “lunch”, or the meal between “breakfast” and “supper”), I called my Dad on his cell phone.  He answered and I could hear that he was in a public place.  Our connection, as usual, wasn’t too good, and we quickly got past the hellos.

“Where are you?”, I asked.

“At the Post Office”, he replied.

“How are you feeling?”  

“I’m in a Helluva shape”, he said.  “I’m feeling dizzy”  There was a trace of fear in his voice.

“You’d better get yourself in”, I said, meaning in to see a Doctor.  My Dad’s had some serious health issues the past few years, and suffered from congestive heart disease, as well as an abdominal aneurism.

At this point, our call was disconnected.  I tried calling him back a second and then a third time, with no answer.  I then called my sister, and she called the director at my Dad’s senior complex, and asked if she could drive the three or four blocks over to the post office and see if our Dad was okay.

We waited about a half hour, and then got a call, first my sister, then me, from the Rusk County Sherriff’s department.  The deputy informed us that they had taken my Dad to Ladysmith in an ambulance; they had no information at this time, and would call back as soon as they could tell us something.  On the calls, they took our addresses and phone numbers.  I asked the deputy if my Dad was conscious when they took him, and he replied no, he was not.

So my sister in Oshkosh and I in Pleasant Prairie waited nervously for a call back.  Finally, around noon, my phone rang.  It was my sister.  They had sent an Oshkosh policeman to her door to give her the news that my Dad had passed away.

The details we have are still a little sketchy, but from what we can gather, after talking to me this morning, my Dad got in his parked car and lost consciousness.  The director from the senior complex found him there and called 911.  On the way to the hospital, they tried to revive him, and for a short time were able to get a very weak pulse.  Once at the hospital, they tried for about another 20 minutes, and then it was over.

The next few hours were spent making and answering phone calls and tending to immediate business.  My sister and I went about these tasks with great efficiency and purpose.   Finally, sometime in the late afternoon, the immediate tasks having been tended to, I had time to think about my Dad and my loss, and it started to hit me.

When I heard the trace of fear in my Dad’s voice this morning, and when he didn’t answer when I tried to call him back, I braced myself for the worst.   So when I heard the news it really didn’t come as a surprise.  I took comfort in the fact that he apparently went pretty quickly.   He had   been very open this summer about the fact that he was 85 years old and ready to die, and the one thing he feared above all else was a slow and incapacitating decline.  

It is still a shock.  He had spent the past several winters in south Texas, and when he came back this year, he looked better than he had in years.  He had good color and high levels of energy.   He was very active routing out and painting wooden signs for friends, and he purchased a membership at a nearby golf course.   He actually golfed several times – something he hadn’t done in years.  In Texas, he was at the center of a large group of good friends, having breakfast with them every morning at the Port Isabel What-A-Burger, and enjoying happy hour every afternoon next to his neighbor’s trailer.  This summer, at the senior complex in Bruce, he had made a new group of good friends, with whom he had coffee every morning and “dinner” at 11:00.  He was happy and vital to the end, and, as he had been his whole life, he was funny. 

He had one setback in early July, when he was hospitalized for a week in Eau Claire, a week that the nursing and cleaning and medical staffs won’t likely forget for a long time, as he entertained them, his shtick in prime form, new audiences that had never seen anything like him.  At 85 years old, it was his curtain call, his last great audience, and he put on the performance of a lifetime, and they all fell in love with him.  Even I, who had witnessed these routines countless times over the years, was transfixed, and laughed out loud despite myself when, for example, he was talking on his cell phone as one of the nurses took blood, skillfully pricking the tip of his finger.  After a couple of minutes, my Dad told whoever he was talking to on the phone to hold on for a second, and then, with the delivery of a master, expressed a sincere but much delayed “Ouuuuchh” to the nurse.  Despite my better judgment, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud.

He seemed to recover completely from the hospital, and, as I took him from doctor offices to labs to surgeon’s offices, he not only seemed to be getting better physically, but was enjoying each visit as an opportunity to repeat his shtick.   It was as if he was taking his hospital show on the road.  I was amazed when, for what seemed like the fourteenth time I heard the same hokey lines about nurses or receptionists being good looking, someone would always laugh, not the polite poor old guy trying to be funny laugh, but genuine laughs from deep down, as in, did you hear what this guy said?

The routines were extended to his morning coffee group, where he made friends with a very nice old guy who my sister and I would refer to as his sidekick.  Every day he’d come to coffee with some wild scheme for him and his sidekick:  they were going to go out west and be cowboys, they were going to become astronauts and take a wing off of the space station.  Gradually, with each crazy adventure he’d concoct, the attendance at morning coffee grew.

After he got home from the hospital, he seemed to regain his strength, going back to work at his sign-making and even making it out with me for a couple rounds of golf.   He was looking forward to returning to Texas this winter.  When talking to him, you got the sense of a man at peace with himself – he was ready to die, but until that happened, he was going to enjoy living every moment left.

This afternoon, after all the calls were made and things started sinking in, I went to the harbor in Kenosha, near where I live, and stared out at the vast deep blue of Lake Michigan.    This is what, for some unexplained reason, I am often compelled to do when I get news of this sort.   I think I’m not alone, a lot of people, when confronted with grief or tragedy, end up at the seaside.  I think it’s natural when we lose someone we love to gaze at the sea or the night sky, because our loss, the hole we feel inside, is so large that we need something bigger than ourselves, big enough to contain the enormity of our pain.

This is where good old Zeno and his paradox come into play.   This is where the infinite lives within the finite. It’s the mathematics of loss.  The immeasurable and incomprehensible infinity of loss will be visible within the small area occupied by an empty chair at tomorrow morning’s coffee at my Dad’s senior center, and it’ll exist within the tiniest fragments of my broken heart.