The hearts of animals is the foundation of their life, the sovereign of everything in them, the sun of their microcosm.
William Harvey, De Motu Cordis et Sanguines , Dedication to King Charles
I return to that house, that night, that instant almost every day. It wasn’t late, not even quite 7:30—this we know from the call records on our cell phones—but it was cold and dark enough to feel much later. I arrived first. I could see that a light was on in the living room, but there was no light through any of the other windows. The car was in the driveway.
I turned my own car off and waited in the dark, but I had no way of guessing how long Abigail would be. Finally, after what I now know was just a couple of minutes but what seemed at the time like an eternity of indecision, I walked up to the front door and unlocked it.
I’ve spent the last year trying to understand what I found when I went inside the house. Not the body: that came later. But what puzzles me is that enormous, palpable absence that flowed through the house like a cold draft the minute I closed the door behind me. It wasn’t as though I had never been in Mary’s house before when she was gone, but this was different. The smells were the same, the hum of the refrigerator was the same, the cat box, the scissors and books on the dining table, the mosaics on either side of the fireplace, the knitting on the coffee table; all the same, but there was something else there that had never been there before: a stillness, a not-thereness that was as real as the furniture.
What was it? I’ve tried on different rational explanations, but I can’t find one that fits. I know that when there is another person in the house we unconsciously register all the tiny movements and rustlings of existence, so it would make sense that we would be aware when they were no longer there. But how would that explain the difference in the emptiness I felt that night versus the more everyday sense of absence when I went in to drop off a book or feed the cat when Mary was out of town? I knew as soon as I entered the house that Mary was gone. I knew without any doubt that she had become a gone-ness that was going to be with me until the day I become an absence myself.
It’s hard to put one’s mind back into a world in which something as self-evident as the circulation of the blood and the action of the heart was not recognized. Not simply not recognized but actually gotten wrong: Aristotle got it wrong; Erasistratus, the classical anatomist who got the valves and so many other things right still got it essentially wrong; Galen, who identified the difference between venous and arterial blood and whose theory of the four humors stood for 1300 years, got it wrong; Vesalius moved the entire field of human anatomy forward but, when it came to the circulatory system, he didn’t question the assumptions of earlier researchers. He got it wrong. Even Fabricius, William Harvey’s own brilliant teacher, got it wrong. William Harvey—who was prickly and outspoken, practiced medicine and studied anatomy during Britain’s turbulent seventeenth century, and served as physician to both Charles I and James I—had an intellectual integrity that wouldn’t let him ignore the evidence of his own experience, however unpopular his discoveries. In his brief biography of William Harvey, written a century after Harvey’s death, David Hume said, “Harvey is entitled to the glory of having made, by reasoning alone, without any mixture of accident, a capital discovery in one of the most important branches of science.”
Harvey brought the body, with its diligently pumping heart, closer to being a machine than it had ever been before, but it was still a machine with a soul—”the instrument of the soul,” in his formulation. Nonetheless, Harvey’s methods, as much as his discoveries, called into question the place in our lives of blind faith and received wisdom. A hundred years later, David Hume, Harvey’s admirer, through reasoning alone dismantled any belief that could not be demonstrated through empirical evidence to be true. “By the mere light of reason it seems difficult to prove the Immortality of the Soul,” he crisply said. And not only is there no immortal soul, there is no distinct and actual self—the self we carry around in the instrument of our body is simply a bundle of experiences and impressions held together by consciousness, but no more.
If Hume is right, then what I felt that night was the absolute and profound absence of a self that had shattered and dispersed as soon as the brain was extinguished. The art, the poetry, the love of jewelry, the self-absorption, the chocolate and gossip and silly laughter, the longing, the joy, the fears, the love, had all disappeared. “The annihilation, which some people suppose to follow upon death,” Hume wrote, “and which entirely destroys this self, is nothing but an extinction of all particular perceptions, love and hatred, pain and pleasure, thought and sensation. These therefore must be the same with self since the one cannot survive the other.”
The heart, it turns out, is a machine driven by simple hydraulics, so it goes on a little longer, pumping blood into the bedsheets, into the mattress, into the rug and onto the floor until it is completely empty.
Then, it too stops.
When her life was shattered by her sister’s suicide, Liz Seymour found unexpected comfort in a big old-fashioned volume of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Every night, she would drop her finger (I Ching-styled) into the book and go wandering through her thoughts with the world’s most quotable companions. Liz lives in Greensboro, NC.