A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness…
–Endymion, John Keats
John Keats wrote these lines in 1818, three years before his death. He died from tuberculosis–a condition he was exposed to throughout his life. In 1818, he was caring for his brother who was also suffering with tuberculosis. It is thought by some that Keats knew tuberculosis would come to claim his life when he wrote those words, which I think gives them more weight.
Keats was, as many writers are/ were, in the constant company of death. He still found a way to write about “joy” and its resistance to fading.
I remember my grandfather–my mom’s dad–as pawpaw Melton. I remember building a teepee out of tree branches with him, and crawling inside to play. In my little brain, we had created a mansion out of sticks. There wasn’t enough room to move around, so I could really only sit inside. But it meant the world to me. I looked out of my little house and up into his gentle and smiling face. It is a memory that has persisted for decades, even after the little house was knocked down by wind.
On Sundays, before we left to go home to Georgia, he was up early, driving his little brown car down to Hardee’s to get us all biscuits for breakfast. I always had chicken on my biscuit.
His language was rich with native Alabama colloquialisms–“I’m gonna get your nannygoat” and others.
And he was a storyteller. It’s this quality that I want to believe, beyond all other things, that I inherited from him–the ability to tell stories and bring people to life with words.
The next part isn’t awesome.
I was in fifth grade. It was a Saturday. I know this because my best childhood friend, Corey, was over. We were watching Power Rangers in the kitchen. The phone rang, but I didn’t think much of it. Phones were made to ring. A little later, my dad came in from the back of the house and told me I needed to send Corey home and go back to see my mom.
Corey left and I walked down the hallway. My mom was crouched on her knees in the floor of the guest bedroom. I don’t know why she was in the guestroom or why she was crouched, but I remember what she told me: “Pawpaw Melton is in the hospital. He had a stroke.”
So I’ve been working on a theory.
This was the first time my young brain had to deal with the mortality of someone I was that close to. I loved my grandpa in my DNA—not in a genetic way, but at a particular depth reserved only for those we truly love. I felt him on a molecular level, which isn’t to say I loved him so dearly because he was my grandpa, but because throughout my childhood, he was a loving and compassionate influence in my life. He made my life better, and I felt his love pumping through me like blood.
Molecular love isn’t about familial love, though it can be. I definitely feel my parents on that level. I feel my grandfather there. I did not feel my cousin there—the one who was gunned down in the middle of a street in Alabama. This may make me a bad person in your eyes. Rest assured, though. He had plenty of people who felt him in this very large and microscopic way, even if I didn’t.
Additionally, molecular love isn’t that pang of obligation that you feel when uncle so-and-so dies—obligation you feel because he’s your uncle and your parents say you’re supposed to feel a certain way. Or the obligation you feel when someone in your class at school dies. This brand of death drums up a mass of band-wagoners. People flock to death for some reason. But this is not molecular love—it is all surface.
Molecular love is something else. And it’s hard to explain*, but I would argue that you know it when you feel it—it’s easy and constant. It does not feel like a chore. It is not an obligation. Sometimes it is overwhelming—like paddling a small boat into a mammoth wave. Other times, it’s subtle–like the movement of the minute-hand of the clock.
Most importantly, though, molecular love is ever-present. It does not need death to call it up. It’s about love that inspires and changes us—at our cores. It is the energy that we transfer from ourselves to those we love.
Molecular love may not even always be positive, but that’s something for another day.
My grandpa didn’t die right after his stroke. Certainly, people loved having him around, but he was a shell of what he used to be. His brain never quite fired like it had before the stroke, but he still had stories to tell.
Stories came slower in those days–he couldn’t think of the words he needed sometimes. He was living my greatest fear: a consistent loss of words; an erasure of vocabulary; the presence of stories and the absence of a way to tell them.
But he still tried, and he mostly succeeded. He would curse from frustration sometimes when the right word or name wouldn’t come to him. Maybe the cursing was a side effect of the stroke–I had never heard him use words like “shit” before–but I think the cursing was a completely understandable reaction to an interruption in his narrative flow.
He died several years later–five, I think. I wasn’t there. I didn’t want to be. I had just gotten my learner’s license, and I remember driving back from Alabama with my dad for school and work. My mom stayed back because she knew what we all knew. I’m sure she felt it in her DNA, as we do.
It’s hard to see things this way. Sometimes the pall of life is dark and the clouds are thick with rain and thunder. But a thing of beauty, a life or a series of memories, is a joy forever, in spite of everything.
Memories live in those who survive—children, lovers, friends, and a myriad of others—in the penetrating love of those left behind.
And, despite what you think happens after life fades, that molecular-level love will never pass into nothingness.
*This is actually my second attempt at this topic. I was unhappy with aspects of the theory of molecular love yesterday. So, as it is a theory I’ve been working on, it is like most theories that I work on in that it is new and malleable. This probably isn’t the last word on it, either.