A name is not a small thing. I didn’t realize its full weight until I read Helen Keller‘s account of her genesis in the world of language and identity. In Keller‘s blind, deaf, pre-linguistic experience, there was only sensation. Keller tells how she was given a doll, and how her teacher attempted to tell her what doll meant. “I became impatient at her repeated attempts and, seizing the new doll, I dashed it upon the floor,” says Keller. It was later that same day that Keller discovered language in the experience famously captured in The Miracle Worker.
“Somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me,” recounts Keller. “I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. On entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow.”
It was only once the set of sensations embodied by “doll” had a name that Keller experienced guilt. To dash the doll to pieces wasn’t merely changing the experiences: It was destroying its very doll-ness. To understand that identity could be more than mere sensation was the beginning of an entirely new world for her. “When I learned the meaning of ‘I’ and ‘me’ and found that I was something, I began to think,” said Keller. “Then consciousness first existed for me.” It is this process of naming and defining that creates the world of the conscious mind.
For years I worked to consciously create an identity for myself as Rob D Young. I created heavy self-perceptions, definitions, a brand of self. I established a reputation. I decided who “Rob D Young” is.
Then about six months ago I started seriously considering changing my name to Robert Blair in honor of my grandfather. Two years ago my grandfather started bleeding internally for no reason in particular. Not long thereafter he had what he dubbed “a bit of a problem with gravity.” I don’t know how people handle this process; I don’t know how to wait for the death of someone I love. There are so many ceremonies and processes and support systems for the passing of a loved one, but the gradual waning beforehand aches fiercely and we are given little else besides the ticking clock. We remind ourselves to remain grateful for whatever time he has left, and we try not to feel guilty for wanting him to stay around in a breaking body for even longer.
“I love life,” he told me. “But I’m in a pain, Robbie. I’m in a lot of pain. I think I’m dying.” Every time he coughs he has an out of body experience. He thinks of family he’s lost. He wonders what dying feels like. He’s told the Lord he’s ready, repeats this to me as if it’s a comfort. Every day there are problems with his blood pressure. I have become obsessed with medical monitors; I take my fleeting comfort in stable vital signs.
I delayed making a choice on whether to change my name. I hyper-analyzed it, tried to weigh the pros and cons. I thought maybe I would do it once my grandfather passed, in commemoration. Then a friend asked me why, if it was to honor my grandfather, I would wait until after he could even know about it. I spoke with my grandfather, telling him about my idea of going by Robbie Blair, making no secret of my uncertainty and conflicted feelings. I realized how frightened I was that he would be ashamed. That he would not want me to carry his name. That he would not want to be identified alongside me.
He told me he was honored. And still I find myself frightened: That maybe he didn’t mean it when he said he’d be proud for me to carry his name, that maybe I wouldn’t be worthy of the name. But also something else: That, having built the person Rob D Young, abandoning that identity was stepping into a void. I realized a few days ago that this wasn’t just anxiety: It was the truth. To abandon your signifier is to step away from a constructed world of self and into a vast emptiness. And I realized that my fear of becoming “Robbie Blair” is simple: “Robbie Blair” doesn’t exist.
Yet. That was the breakthrough that helped me realize what I wanted. Stepping into the identity of Robbie Blair is the choice to become a person who doesn’t exist yet. Because I haven’t made that person. The only way to find out if I like being Robbie Blair is to build Robbie Blair, and work hard to make him the sort of person I want to be.
Realizing that the construction of this identity was my responsibility, that the vast emptiness I was stepping into was not a chasm so much as a blank page, I decided to begin the work. This is not simply an act of creation: There is also a loss. There is an old version of myself I am stepping away from, and I am not ashamed of Rob D Young. I am not ashamed of the Young family heritage. I am not ashamed of my past. Rob D Young has been the person who brought me here, who helped me survive. He kept me strong even when it felt like my world was crumbling. And now I am laying him to rest. Burying the Young man, though not forsaking, not forgetting.
There is a picture, somewhere, of me and my uncle Bobby helping my grandfather walk, one of us under each of my grandfather’s shoulders, supporting him. My mother called it “Three generations of Robert.” The need for this sort of help is new, but we are getting practiced quickly. Three days a week, someone is there to help my grandfather from his dialysis chair to his wheelchair. He stumbles without us. He falls. We help him stand. We carry him.
“This isn’t who I am,” my grandpa told me and my little brother as we helped him to his wheelchair. “I’m not an old man.”
And it’s true. There is something so much more about my grandfather than the body he resides in. There is something of him that remains so vital in the world, so vital in me. The pain now is not in the loss of breath or blood but the loss of all the little pieces that mean my grandfather. It is so easy to think of life and death as a binary pair, two contradictory states of being. But we are all dying, slowly, and we are all slowly being born.
There will come a day when my grandfather will have a real funeral with its processions and traditions, but we are burying the young man day by day. It is a process of long mourning, and of letting go, but it is also a process of carrying and remembering. I choose now to carry his name, more fully, more actually. A commemoration. Perhaps even a memento mori: “Remember that we all will die.” But also a memento nasci: “Remember to be born.”
Robbie Blair is a writer who blogs about the writing craft, travel, educational psychology, life, and other uber-nifty™ stuff. Check out his website for more of his writing or join his crew for regular updates.