In October of 1946, the Nobel Prize winning physicist, Richard Feynman, wrote a beautiful and moving letter to his wife. The problem was his wife was dead.
In high school, Richard spent summers at the beach in Far Rockaway, New York. It was there that he fell in love with a girl named Arline.
Years later, as they began to make plans to marry, while in college, they faced a major obstacle. Richard was graduate student at Princeton, pursuing a PhD. Princeton threatened to withdraw his fellowship and funding if he married Arline, because the university considered the emotional attachment and responsibilities of marriage to be a threat to academic endeavors.
To complicate things even further, Arline became very ill, and had contracted a rare form of tuberculosis.
At the time, in 1941, the use of antibiotics was barely understood, meaning that her diagnosis was a death sentence, though one that would progress slowly, with intervals of remission.
Undeterred, they wed anyway. His biographer, James Gleick, described their wedding day this way:
"He borrowed a station wagon from a Princeton friend, outfitted it with mattresses for the journey, and picked up Arline in Cedarhurst. She walked down her father’s hand-poured concrete driveway wearing a white dress. They crossed New York Harbor on the Staten Island ferry — their honeymoon ship. They married in a city office on Staten Island, in the presence of neither family nor friends, their only witnesses two strangers called in from the next room. Fearful of contagion, Richard did not kiss her on the lips. After the ceremony he helped her slowly down the stairs, and onward they drove to Arline’s new home, a charity hospital in Browns Mills, New Jersey."
Soon after their marriage, Richard was recruited to work on what would become the Manhattan Project and joined the secret laboratory in Los Alamos.
Arline moved with him, but took up residence in the nearby Albuquerque sanatorium, because of her health. To pass the time, she would write letters to Richard and send them to his office. She knew that he loved puzzles, so she wrote her letters in code, which greatly alarmed the military censors at the lab's intelligence office.
On June 16, 1945, while at work in his lab, Feynman received a call from the sanatorium that Arline was dying. He borrowed a colleague’s car and sped to the hospital, where he found her immobile, her eyes barely tracing his movement. She took her final breath at 9:21PM.
Feynman embodied the scientific method, believing in nothing that could not be proven through rational argument and quantifiable evidence. His wife was the opposite, making them an odd but complimentary pair. She had loved the writings of Descart, who was famous for, among other things, his rational argument for the existence of God. Feynman, however despised Descart's argument for the proof of God's existence, calling it intellectually lazy and unbefitting of Descartes’s reputation as a champion of reason.
Nevertheless, this physicist, this man of staunch rationalism wrote a letter to his wife two years after her death.
He wrote this: "It is such a terribly long time since I last wrote to you — almost two years but I know you’ll excuse me because you understand how I am, stubborn and realistic; and I thought there was no sense to writing."
He goes on at length and then concludes in this way: "My darling wife, I do adore you. I love my wife. My wife is dead."
But then, with a sense of humor that brings a smile, he added a post-script. He said, "PS Please excuse my not mailing this — but I don’t know your new address."
This past week, there was a Christian holiday that often goes unnoticed these days. It was November 1st, All Saints Day. It is a day within Christian calendar that is an occasion to remember those who have gone before us and to acknowledge the impact that they still have on our lives, an impact outlives their physical lives, as Richard Feynman acknowledged in his letter to his wife.
To pause and to remember those who have gone before us is an uncomfortable undertaking, but it is one of importance and it is a fruitful endeavor.
I am reminded of a wonderful prayer of goodbye which Robert Raines shares in his book, Going Home. Raines prays, “As we separate and the ties unbind and the threads of our lives disentangle and we make ready for a new weaving, let us believe in our hearts that nothing we have shared together that is good will be lost, that all we were takes its honored place in our life’s journey, that nothing is cancelled, but some things are settled and concluded, that much we cannot say or communicate, nonetheless abides and endures, that nothing can separate us from your love, in your love.”
On those occasions, like All Saints day, when we remember those who have gone before us, may we do so believing that nothing we have shared together that is good will be lost, that all we were takes its honored place in our life’s journey, that nothing is cancelled, but some things are settled and concluded, that much we cannot say or communicate nonetheless abides and endures, and that nothing can separate us all from God’s love, in God’s love.
Thanks be to God, the God of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.