Who Are These People?

Towards the end of his life, my father had moments of lucidity between the aortal aneurisms that left him lying face-down in his cereal and the Alzheimers that left him emulating an answering machine. On one such occasion, he looked out the hospital window and said, "Who are these people? Where are they all going?"

I looked out the window. We were in Duluth, Minnesota, and outside the window was an ordinary American street, with cars, trucks, motorcycles, a bicycle or two, people walking.

"Who are they?" my father repeated, sadly.

Finally, I cleared my throat and said, "I don't suppose there's any way of knowing. But we'll get you out of here soon and go for a ride in the car, OK?"

Outside our window, while my father fought for his life and his mind, ordinary people drove by oblivious. They took their kids to school and went to the grocery store. They drove to their jobs at the paper mill, at the newspaper, at the university, at the high-tech startup. They were concerned with the usual human motives: sex, money, power, fame. None were aware that in a few years they would be dead and their deeds forgotten. None were aware that their 70 years of life counted for little in a universe of 13 billion years. None were aware that my only father was disintegrating before my eyes, nor that having already taken his car keys, the time was coming when I would have to pull the plug and let him die.

"Who are they?" is a question I sometimes find myself asking as I drive to work, past inscrutible establishments manufacturing automobile parts, computer circuit boards, detergents, processed food. Who are the people who keep things going while the princes of the world play their chickenshit games? Who honors their labors? Who honors my father, who built houses and apartment buildings and office towers that stand today while he lies in grateful silence?