bearing witness
Nantucket Essays Nantucket History & People

Bearing Witness

by Robert P. Barsanti

A young man with a famous last name died recently on island. Sudden deaths have become unfortunate and common in the last few years, not just on Nantucket, but throughout the country. Every death is as unique as a fingerprint. The reasons are opaque: the results caustic. We hear of the death and we pause, then we ask ourselves why and what could we have done? Every answer we find is wrong.

As a country, we have hit a shocking point where the average American’s life expectancy is ten years less than the average European’s. Scientists and pundits mutter out the usual imprecise answers—guns, drugs, cars, and loneliness—as we slide down this social spiral into despair. The numbers don’t lie; they mutter angry insults at our solitary and ignorant lives.

On Nantucket, we like to think of ourselves as different, and perhaps we are. We worked with him, we said hi to him at the post office, we stood with him on the sidelines of a Whaler game, we served him coffee. We remain here when the wind turns cold and the sky seals itself in stainless steel, and he stood with us. Now he doesn’t.

Were he, or any of the recent and sudden deaths, to have passed in Worcester, we could imagine how he might have felt, alone in an anonymous city. The lights racing along the highway, the noise outside, the silence inside. But in our proud and righteous community, these deaths of despair insult our hope and our pride.

Of course, we are not the community we used to be. We don’t have enough therapists. We don’t have enough nurses. We don’t have enough clergy, or police, or firemen. We don’t have a funeral home. On the other hand, we have plenty of golf caddies, tennis pros, and bankers. We don’t have enough of Mr. Roger’s helpers, who can live on good deeds and service. The rest of us survive under the mounting financial pressure that forces us to run faster to remain standing in one place.

Still, on a sunny Tuesday afternoon in June, the body was brought from the hospital, past the new Fire Station, and then back through town, up Orange to Union, and to the boat. We lined up and bore witness. He was one of us and he was gone and we had to see it and feel it. Pictures were taken from outside the cars, and from inside, as the family bore witness as well to a community in grief.

I think, when we “bear witness,” we are watching something that we can’t explain or comprehend. We have to acknowledge how little we know, how little we control, and how dark the world can be just outside of the porch lights. All of us along the side of the road had the same questions, and none of us had adequate answers. So here we are as an island and as a country, bearing witness to all of these deaths of despair. Even here. Even us.

Wednesday arrived like a bad joke. Life continued. The sun rose, the boats came, and bicycles got rented. Visitors walked down the ramps and stood before the commonplace wonder of our island.

For the dead, time stops in that last moment. They will meet no one else, they will shake no more hands, they will make no more memories. For the living, the days brings a punch list, an invoice, and six unreturned phone calls. The hours scuttle by, waving their claws. Then Thursday dawns with the newspaper, and we start again.

The following days wash by in horrible chores. Messages need to be sent. Clothes need to be packed up. Christmas presents. Pictures. Mementoes. All of the stuff that we collected over the years, curated, polished, and kept beyond its worth, will have its day or two in the Take it or Leave It. This rod was his favorite, he loved wearing those pants, he collected all of these books.

On Tuesday, when we stood on the streets, and we watched, and we bore witness, that story ended. But it didn’t disappear. It rose up in our minds and throats and tied us to each other. One thread in the weaving was tied off, but the fabric remained.

At Marine Home Center, I stood in the paint department with three former colleagues and we remembered. We had good stories from the past, where the sudden dead appeared as a help and a hope. We had stories from the our shared time, and from the recent memory: fish, boats, fires, friends, work, and hopes. We handed the shuttle back and forth, hand to hand, mouth to mouth, and wove a cloth to keep the days away,

We all die. We all die too soon. All of our stories end half finished in front of an audience shocked at the silence. Out here, for the moment, we are still lucky to live our stories surrounded by others. Our stories weave a cloth with threads from those who have dipped in and out of the weaving. On a small island, in the gray of the winter, our stories cross and recross hundreds of times. No man is an island. We are all a piece of the continent, a part of the rock…

We know for whom the bell tolls. In that silence of the streets, as we watched the fire trucks trundle by, we re-examined the cloth that we shared. There is no lesson, no answer, no theme. We can’t know about the central mystery of those last moments. But the thread remains woven tight into the cloth, warm, laughing, and in the end, inexplicable. We wrap ourselves in it.

Fairwinds is here on Nantucket to help:
Call or text them at 508-228-2689—their 24/7 crisis hotline is 508-221-3315
For a life-threatening emergency, call 911 immediately

Articles by Date from 2012