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This I Believe

ED's picture

I believe in recycling.
Yes, I have always loved the great outdoors, yes, I have always had a penchant for dirt and bugs and for clipping the plastic from six packs so animals wouldn’t get strangled. But, I never thought I would come to live and breathe the world as consciously as I do today. It wasn’t a choice I made, but rather an unexpected event that showed me my starkest flaw—attachment—and gave me my greatest gift: a most necessary lesson in science.
When I was five, we sold the family’s gray caravan and I cried for days at the loss. When I was twelve I cut my hair for the first time—three inches off—and wept at that loss as well. We bought a new caravan, this one blue, and my hair grew back by seventh grade, but when I lost my father at age fifteen there was no replacement, no period of time I could wait, and absolutely no way to avoid the change.
The day my father died was surreal. There is only one phone call I remember, though I received many— from my friend, Tess. “I heard what happened,” she said in soft yet frontal voice, “and I’m so sorry. How did he die?” “He died unexpectedly of a heart attack.” There was a pause. “Are you okay?” she asked. Evenly, I replied: “I’m as okay as I can be. My dad refused to go to a doctor. He hated hospitals. He died the way he would have wanted to,” I explained, “he died naturally. My father always loved nature, and he will be okay with returning to the ground and becoming dirt….” A surprising comfort came over me at the honesty of my answer. “Woah,” Tess said after a pause, “I’d just be like—‘DADDY!’”
…At that moment I realized I was reacting atypically. Why was I seemingly okay with his death?
We decided to bury him, even though we always planned on cremation. We chose a cherry wood casket— the thirty minute process of selecting a box to nail my father into for the rest of time remains the single worst experience of my life— because cherry wood was his favorite, and we wanted to be sure that it would be biodegradable. And that’s where it all started: my obsession with recycling.
My thoughts were graphic for the first few months after he died—but they didn’t scare me. I loved my father, and still do, and in the raw days and months after he died I couldn’t stop myself from imagining the changing condition of his body. His un-functioning body. Where was he? What was happening to him? Where was he going? Energy is never created nor destroyed, I thought, and neither are elements… atoms are still atoms and they constitute elements and molecules and…… I realized I was turning to science to make sense of what I could never see again, what I couldn’t control. I wanted to know what was to be of what “was” my father. A strange line between science and art developed at that time. My “father,” as I recognized him, was really just an elegant pile of elements and atoms, never destroyed, but not remaining in his form forever. So where did his atoms go? And someday, if I got a whiff of a molecule that used to function for him on the breeze, would I sense him? Would my body know intuitively? Atoms don’t get marked, they don’t keep records, they don’t show any history, they just get reused, wiped clean. I let go of my father and I became attached instead to the idea that my physical father might help a tree grow someday, or feed a worm. Sure human decay is disgusting, but it’s the plain truth, and somehow this hard science has become something magical and serendipitous to me. I love that my own hands are not the same ones I was born with, but are constantly being renewed, using elements that have belonged to countless other things in other places before me. The untold and unsenseable history of everything makes life universal. The natural process of recycling, the way in which we all share the world, is simple and touching. My dad’s death gave birth to my thinking about recycling on much grander terms than just tossing a Poland Springs bottle into the right bin. Thank you dad, for this I definitely believe.