Saturday, July 3, 2010

The great leveler

I think it was in 11th grade that the final inevitability of life actually dawned on me in biology class. I was reading out loud the textbook that stated that all living things on earth had a birth, a period of growth and then death. The text stated the only difference between man and the creatures that crawl upon, swim in or soar above its surface is that we know we will die. It's not a question of if, but when, the text reiterated. Up to that point I had only experienced death or thought about it as something that happened to someone else. Now the message was being made abundantly clear: I was going to die too. Through the intervening years I have lost many relatives and close friends. I was only five when my great-grandfather died, but I remember seeing him for the last time in the hospital room and then he was gone. Several great aunts and great uncles went to their graves and I was sad, but failed to connect the thought that their demise was indeed a fate in store for me. The summer between my sixth and seventh grades I became best friends at summer camp with another kid also from New Orleans. While we were not close at first, we gravitated towards each other and did everything together toward the end of the summer. We pledged to get together during the coming school year. Within just a few weeks we were both back home and in school. One morning I received a phone call from a friend that informed me my buddy had been killed in a tragic car crash with his mother and brother. They had been driving and struck an abutment. The car had caught fire while my friend was still buckled in the back seat. Quick action allowed his brother and mother the chance to get out of the vehicle. They survived, but my friend didn't. I didn't attend the funeral, but I did visit his grave a year or so later and to this day I still miss him. Yet, I don't think the gravitas of his death made quite the impression that the deaths of my grandparents and even more great aunts and great uncles did later. But in retrospect, it should have. He was just a kid, after all. They had lived many more decades, had had an opportunity to have families and to enjoy what others referred to as their golden years. They were able to travel, while he had rarely sojourned from the city of his birth. There have been several friends and close family members I have lost through the years, not the least of whom were my father and wife within just a three-week period. Now, though, I am beginning to realize that the unanticipated mourning for but a few of my contemporaries is about to make the turn towards the expected and commonplace. Yesterday I attended a funeral for an 82-year-old man who was deeply religious and kind beyond description. His memory was still fresh in my mind when I received the startling news that one of my contemporaries, a woman only a few years older than I, has succumbed to an aneurysm. While we were not close, I did feel a loss for her husband and the two grown children she left behind. A religious man might state that G-d really needed her in a hurry, while a secular man might suggest it was just her time. But knowing she was nearly 60, I began to consider actuarial tables. I remember thinking to myself that she will be the first of a new decade of departures. The odds are that some of us will die due to accident, disease or foul play. Many of my contemporaries will die in this coming decade and whether I will be on that list, no one can say. I want to live my life as best I can with the knowledge that what I do is important and enriching to others and myself. I consider my days on earth as precious gifts and I want to treasure those that are left and the possibilities they signify. But in the end, imposed with a sentence of life, I will continue to carry on as any man could or should: with faith, hope and charity deep in my heart.

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