April 18, 2007

Death Must Need A Counterweight

Lately I've been thinking a bit about mortality. I'd have to say this has probably been brought on by a few things, not the least of which were this weekend's 5 hour drives to and from Las Vegas.

Driving through the desolate desert for five hours leaves a lot of time for solving many of the world's problems and tackling mankind's most befuddling philosophical perplexities. As for me, I decided that instead of taking a broad sweeping approach and coming up with the ultimate solution for everything, that I would much rather hone my focus on one key issue. So I chose mortality. Seemed like as good a place to start as any.

I recently hit a milestone age, that being 40. Apparently I'm a serious adult now. I'm not anywhere near suffering from mid-life crisis, but I suddenly have a pretty good idea of what it's going to feel like when you're running down the road and suddenly slam, face first, into life. I suppose that got me started on this mortality contemplation kick.

As if that's not enough, within the past three weeks, two of my friends' mothers died. I have to admit it left me with a bit of trepidation earlier this month as I sat in my mother's hospital room in New Orleans.

Like the stench of an unlit gas oven that has been left on too long, the tension of post-Katrina destruction permeated the air throughout the entire city. In New Orleans these days, greatness has turned to good and bad has turned to worse. It's a forlorn skeleton of the town it used to be.

So as I watched my mother recovering in her hospital bed from fairly routine, but major surgery, I couldn't help but feel a bit heavy-hearted. Someday she will pass away. And in years to come I will probably be the one laying on the hospital bed, where my father's father and his father before him all lay. I, too, will pass away.

Death is a natural part of life, yet death has become so sad to us humans. It marks not a transition or a celebration, but an end. With death, the road has stopped. Most likely, you never even saw the sign that said "No Thru Traffic. Dead End."

Death tears us apart. It adds weights to the ventricles of our hearts that pulls on the strings of emotion. Death makes you want to engage - to know the victim's more than you had. As if you missed something along the road of life, death is your excuse to catch up.

Sometimes I read through the obituary section of the paper to learn more about the lives that have left us. I've realized that there are two types of obituaries. The first kind is written for all the people who have had a modicum of celebrity in their life. Their obituary is usually a few columns long and provides an uplifting description of all their important life achievements and how the world has become a better place because of their existence and blah blah blah yadda yadda yadda. I finish reading those pieces and feel a sense of, wow, I really need to start doing more with my life pretty quickly if I want to be even half as important as this person clearly was.

The other kind of obituary is the small little paragraph about the person you've most likely never heard of. These paragraphs are usually delivered by either the family or the mortuary and tend to be short and to the point, giving a very brief description of the person, their life, how they died and what family survives them. These are the obituaries that I find the most heavy-hearted.

I wonder who those people were that their lives should be condensed into a generic paragraph. I wonder of the injustice that has been done to them. Of all the lives they've changed and the people they've made smile. I wonder about the joy in their hearts as they held their newborns years ago - those newborns who, decades later, are relegated to the status of "survived by two sons and one daughter." I wonder about the stories these people had to share, the tragedies and triumphs they experienced. I wonder if my life will be relegated to an 80 word classified.

Every day the New York Times prints the names of soldiers who have died in Iraq. Whenever I see this little box, I make it a point to read this information. I soak in the names, ages and hometowns for these soldiers who have given their lives for our freedom and safety. It's the least I can do to celebrate them.

It was just about this time during my drive back from Las Vegas that I passed the car accident. I'm not sure what hit the Toyota, but it was clearly a very large object... like a meteor, or a UFO or maybe a mac truck driven by a guy too busy eating a burrito to notice where he was going.

What was once a four-door sedan had been crumpled into a metal ruin that could probably fit in the glove box of a Mini Cooper. As I looked at the remains of the car while I drove by, I felt a wave of sadness blanket my body. No human being could have escaped that accident. There, but for the grace of God, go I, traveling through the wave of the path of destruction. I suppose my heart shed a tear for the people crushed in the car.

I began to wonder who they were. Did I run into them while I was in Vegas? Was it the couple that rode up the elevator with me? Or the guy at the roulette table? What tears will their parents shed upon hearing the news. Will these people who once lay inches from my car, who may have been passers-by in my life, who's lives have been irretrievably vanquished in the blink of an eye - will these people be scornfully immortalized in a generic newspaper obituary that I will neglect to read?

So what of the Toyotas? And what of the recent disaster at Virginia Tech? Thirty-three lives that have been dramatically taken from us in a flurry of outrage, like the victims of that big black amorphous cloud in Lost. Where is the good in all of this? Where is the meaning?

Death, it seems to me, should have meaning. Death must need a counterweight.

Nearly 400 years ago, Sir Isaac Newton figured out that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. For every negative charged particle, there is a positive charged to counter-balance it. For every pressure of force in one direction, there is an equal and opposite pressure pushing against. With every loss, with every bad - there must be good.

So, I asked myself, what is our counter-balance for death?

It is life, I soon realized. With every death, there comes life. Life not necessarily of a new born, but life filled with memory and passion. The force of death is so strong, it can push people to participate in life. In this way, death breeds life.

Eight years ago my grandfather passed away. It was hard for me, we were close. Yet though he is dead, he is not gone. I think about him often, I feel him with me. He is in my dreams. With his death, I've inherited a life of memories and feelings. And I suppose that's what this all comes down to. It's about reading the names of soldiers in the paper and knowing the history of the thirty-three victims at Virginia Tech. And remembering. It is mourning with sadness and remembering with smiles.

Dying is not failing to breathe. It is not leaving this world. To truly die is the moment when nobody remembers who you are - when the last person with the last memory of you finally passes away.

Until then, we breathe, we live, we smile, we laugh, we remember. And in so doing we become the counter-weight to all of those who can't.


Coach Tammy said...

beautifully written.

Spence said...

Fantastic post. Yesterday I heard that a friend of mine was killed over the weekend when she got out of her car to switch drivers on I-95. In front of her family. She was 25. Not much makes any sense about it and coupled with the VA Tech tragedy, this week has felt so dark and empty. But this...this counterweight to death...makes a lot of sense. I will mourn with sadness and remember with smiles. I feel lighter. So thanks for that. Keep on keeping on...

j. said...

Wow, Spence. I am so sorry to hear about your friend. Tragedy - sometimes it seems even that word doesn't quite capture the sadness and senselessness of such an event. I've begun to wonder if the heart shrinks or expands with this sadness. I suppose it's a little of both. As a piece of you is ripped away, perhaps there's another piece that gets glued on to make one stronger.

Either way, I'm honored to have been able to bring at least a wee bit of lightness into this dark time.

Prayers for you and all who surround your friend.

penney said...

Thank you for this post. I really enjoy reading your blog.

I agree, life and the connections we make with people all around us, will keep our world in balance.

triathlonmom said...

Thank you for reminding us to savor and cherish the memories of those we've lost.
Beautiful post.