When my mother tested positive for COVID-19 before Thanksgiving, I was winding down my fall semester. On the last Sunday of November, she left the nursing home via ambulance to the hospital. On December 7th, she returned to her home of forty-five years for hospice care. My dad, my sister Liz, my brother Scott, and I were all there to hold her hand and love on her some more. Somehow, I believe, my mother orchestrated all of it and brought her family together for our goodbyes. Meanwhile, in the final weeks of my mother’s life, John Berger’s novel Here Is Where We Meet spoke directly to me, and I had a final paper to write. This post is an excerpt. In a fusion of fiction and autobiography, Berger weaves separate and seemingly unrelated threads of memories and experience and time and space to depict the interconnectedness of life and death.
The novel begins in Lisboa with the narrator, an author named John, ruminating on his dreams. In John’s dreams his parents are alive, and he phones them for various reasons, forgetting they are dead (2-3). When the Lisboa scene resumes, John’s mother takes his arm, they cross the street, and she says, “John…The thing you should know is this: the dead don’t stay where they are buried” (3). A person who continues to live in the hearts and minds of others can never truly be dead. We carry the dead with us wherever we go, whether we are awake or asleep. John goes to Lisboa and meets his long-dead mother there.
In her farewell to John, Mother shares a final philosophy on life and some motherly advice, which shapes the course of the novel. She says, “we are here to repair a little of what was broken” (51) and “we come to the eternal conundrum of making something out of nothing” (53). She advises her son, the writer, to “Just write down what you find…and do us the courtesy of noticing us” (53). For the rest of the novel, John does his mother the courtesy of practicing her advice, noticing the dead, and writing down his memories of them. Perhaps the narrator John and the author John Berger are one in the same, and in writing this book, perhaps both Johns repair a little of what was broken.
John, the narrator, spends the rest of the book traveling throughout Europe, from Lisboa to Genève to Kraków to Islington to Le Pont d’Arc to Madrid and to the Polish village of Górecko, as if travel is one of life’s secrets. He moves fluidly between settings, the past and present, the living and the dead. His travels reveal the most important people, places, and experiences of his life. John Berger published Here Is Where We Meet at age 79, probably when he considered the influences and interconnections of life and death more than ever before.
John Berger’s eight chapters conclude with chapter 8 ½, a one-page dialogue scene with his mother that ends where the novel begins and connects it all together. Mother repeats her earlier advice, “Just write down what you find” (237). Perhaps life ends in the same way—we remember our loved ones and their words and connect all the pieces. John’s mother returns to her point in the way that people do when they want to make sure their audience has heard the message. Yet, even after eight chapters depicting the courtesy of noticing and writing it down, John responds by saying, “I’ll never know what I’ve found.” He doubts what he knows as we all tend to do, but in truth, John has found more than he realizes, making something out of nothing.
My mother passed at home on Christmas Eve, surrounded by her family. She is no longer here, yet she is vividly here. In my mind, my beautiful Mama radiates the sheer joy of her prime and laughs a sparkling twenty-year-old laugh. She lives on through my family, in our hearts and minds, and in the countless number of trees she planted around my hometown. I can only hope to do my mother the courtesy of continuing to notice, to write down what I find, and to repair a little of what was broken..