Andrée Seu Peterson: The new math

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Monday, the 14th of May. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from member-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

WORLD published three collections of Andrée Seu Peterson’s best magazine columns, and we asked her to record several of them for you. Today, we have one of her most poignant ones. She tells of the altered sense of time she experienced after her husband died in 1999.

REICHARD: Here is Andrée Seu Peterson.

ANDRÉE SEU PETERSON: I have a different concept of time than I did a year ago. It’s the new math of my life, unexpected perquisite of this unwelcome gift that keeps giving. The death of a spouse, one learns, is a package that comes full of surprises released one by one.

There is the compression of one’s sojourn to a small measure, a synopsis visible at a glance, that whole business of a final reckoning. I have new insight into the heightened deathbed lucidity of old Jacob, distilling from all the folderol of his sons’ years their salient, defining deeds. I have seen the Last Judgment ahead of time.

The lesson of this year is finite numbers: There is a finite number of rainbows you will see in your lifetime, a finite number of full moons, and surprisingly few after all. A finite number of times you will walk into your husband’s study and choose to stop and say “I love you,” or just brush past for the book you were after.

At first after he left, I was desperate to live longer, into my 70s at least, just to have a chance to make up for the unkindnesses of the first 47 years. But almost immediately I was suspicious of that math–a little too cut and dry.  

Here is a game you can play for months: Rake over the past, trying to rewrite the bad parts. What a terrible dignity is man’s, that his every careless word should alter the configuration of the universe for all time, with repercussions even into eternity.   

St. Paul tells of a more encouraging math, an alien algebra; Christ’s death in exchange for my sin. “The free gift is not like the offense. If by the one man’s offense death reigned, much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounds to many.” Glorious asymmetry.  

Chechen rebels beating a retreat from Grozny threw themselves on Russian landmines, sacrificing life to pave a human footpath for their fellow fighters amidst shouts of “Meet you in paradise!” It was the wrong god, but in a way they had the right idea. It’s not about the number of summers and winters you pile one atop the other; what an impoverished manner of calculation that is!

Who’s to say that 80 mediocre years is better than the 46 my husband had, with that merciful four-month season of “making every effort to be found spotless, blameless, and at peace with him”? (II Peter 3)

What mathematician will produce the proofs for that? Jesus died at 33. Where is the man who will say, “Pity he died too soon”? Dear Lord, better a short life that’s lived to thee, than four score of merely marking time.

I often walk through a two hundred year-old cemetery and read dates on headstones. There seems very little advantage, a century later, to having been the last one dead.     

For WORLD Radio, I’m Andrée Seu Peterson.

(Family photograph) Young Seu

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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