The standard definition of Entropy is somewhat understated.
The Wikipedia entry is wrapped up in the language of science, and if you’re not a scientist, you’re not likely to understand it.
"Entropy is a scientific concept, as well as a measurable physical property that is most associated with a state of disorder, randomness, or uncertainty."— Wikipedia
It gets worse. The concept of entropy lives within the second law of thermodynamics. The second law says the entropy of a system never decreases. Left unchecked, it increases.
None of this makes much sense to most of us, but we must pay attention to the unique force of entropy.
My best definition of entropy
When we do nothing, we expose ourselves to the likelihood of disorder, randomness, and uncertainty affecting us. What’s more, the longer we do nothing, the worse the chaos of disorder, randomness, and uncertainty will be.
It is this version I return to as I digest the passing of my stepdad.
It is the starkest of stories and it offers a terrifying explanation of the chaos of entropy in action. No other event I've been involved in has taught me more about the power of entropy and what happens when you do nothing.
An example of entropy, not a definition
In 2017, my stepdad suffered a small stroke.
He recovered well, returning to drive after a mandatory break. But things began to change.
Subtle in the beginning, but grow they did to be noticeable to those standing afar.
Retirement initially suited my mum and stepdad. But, as they both grew older, so they changed. The sense of purpose they needed to go to bed at a sensible time or to get up disappeared. The sofa became the bed, as their lives drifted into disorder.
Their phones became their homes.
Living on a diet of Facebook scrolling, of playing solitaire, or just drifting in and out of sleep, my mum and stepdad’s lives evolved into one without purpose.
My stepdad became forgetful. His driving – his one love – scared most passengers. My father-in-law once declaring that he would never get in the car with him driving again. I talked to mum, but my stepdad wasn’t having any of it.
Meanwhile, a new idea arose. Moving home, one which would mean moving over three hundred miles. A new home, in a new country, beckoned, as they tried to fight the pending chaos with a fresh start.
The creep of entropy
Hindsight offers insights we shouldn’t have missed. But we did. We didn’t see their attempt at packing before they’d even found a home. Or the failed house visits, because they couldn’t translate the satnav map to the road before them.
Then, as the sale approached, COVID hit.
The first lockdown only compounded the creep of entropy. As the definition of entropy alludes too, left unchecked the chaos only grows. Boxes stood idle for months, making the front room floor feel like an overgrown maze.
Other signs were there if we could have looked.
Then, the lockdown eased, and the move was on. The day before they were due to move, I arrived to help. I was going to drive them up in their car as we feared they would never arrive.
Inside the boxes still stood side by side, the lids taped together with nothing of substance packed. My stepdad wasn’t right, as he pottered around, unable to help with packing. It was a sobering experience as my brother, and I, worked like mad to get them ready to move.
As I lay on the sofa that night, I couldn’t settle. My stepdad was showing the signs of something more than just old age. Hopefully, the move will help him, I thought wistfully.
Entropy will only grow.
The move brought more chaos. The promise of a new dawn was a darkness that never brightened. The sofa became their bed, with the bedroom a dumping ground for their anything and everything.
In the kitchen, dirty plates arose like skyscrapers in Shanghai. Food grew rapidly beyond its sell-by date, as the takeaways supplemented their hunger.
My stepdad couldn’t dress, putting t-shirts on back to front, or two socks on one foot – leaving the other bare.
A call to the doctor gave a path to an assessment for dementia or other illness. The appointment was in six months. Covid creating a delay he didn’t need.
He would never make that appointment.
Then, he started to fall. Sliding off the sofa, unable to stand. Four times this happened, with the final fall ending in a trip to the local accident and emergency hospital. The only crumb of comfort; an urgent referral to a consultant.
It could have been Parkinson’s, but it wasn’t. The consultant confirmed our fears - suspected vascular dementia.
As we pondered the news, entropy was about to show its hand in devastating style.
If you don’t decide, Chaos will get you.
For reasons of a lack of space, the toaster lived on top of the hob. My stepdad, alone in the kitchen turned the hob on, with the toaster still in place. It didn’t take long for the toaster to melt and catch fire. The flames spread to the kitchen cupboards above the stove, and across to the microwave. The fire spread quickly, and with the help of the neighbours, both my mum and stepdad escaped unharmed. They were lucky.
With the kitchen gutted, and the electrics damaged the house was declared unsafe. So, amid another stay-at-home lockdown, we found a hotel for my parents to stay in. For my stepdad, the unfamiliar environment was terrifying. His dementia required the comfort of surroundings he knew, but they were gone.
For five days, we battled to keep him safe before a suitable care home became available.
The move to the care home offered more disorder for stepdad. Made even worse by the covid restrictions. For ten days, he had to isolate himself in his room, without visitors.
This was the cruellest stroke entropy could play.
Three days he lasted at the home. A fall leaving him with a huge bump on his head and a broken collar bone. And so, the hospital took him, treating him for his injuries.
And then, if it couldn’t get worse, it did. COVID got him. My stepdad catching it a week after his admission, from a mass outbreak on one of the wards. His dementia had one play left, to stop him from excepting the ventilation he so desperately needed.
He passed away a week later.
The manifestation of entropy
It’s a horrible story, but a true one. The disorder, the random events and the uncertainty are all there. Dementia, COVID-19, moving home, the loss of purpose – all are entropy.
My stepdad couldn’t defend himself.
This is the thing about entropy, you can’t see it coming. It is there, poised, ready to bring chaos to your life – if you let it.
In my stepdad’s case, he couldn’t defeat it. First the stroke, then the creep of vascular dementia followed. Stealthy it picked away at his brain, taking a piece at a time. It went unnoticed for years until it had compounded to such an extent you couldn’t miss it.
And just when he needed diagnosis and help, COVID struck.
The randomness of the kitchen fire might be an outlier, but in the context of how entropy increases, it can hardly be a surprise. What followed; well, you could call it bad luck, but for me, it was the manifestation of entropy.
This example offers more than the definition of entropy. It offers a blunt example of what happens when chaos decides through the embodiment of disorder. It should serve as a warning to us all.