Just a couple of weeks ago I sat here thinking, It’s been a really long time since anyone close to me has died. Then I remembered Miss Joanie, who died in January, almost a year ago. Still, a year with no close deaths is a pretty long time. Then I remembered my goddaughter’s father-in-law died in the spring from a recently discovered brain tumor. He wasn’t close, though she is, and it was a tough loss for her family. Then I remembered that I sat grieving and burning a candle for a whole day for a Florida friend, before I learned she had died the day before, just four months after a lung cancer diagnosis.
Then I remembered another neighbor that died last summer, not close, but dear, leaving his wife of sixty-some years. A month ago a beloved community member, a wife, a nurse and a singer, close with many of my friends, died of cervical cancer and hundreds showed up at her memorial; I heard a baby in town died recently, maybe SIDS, a terrible blow to a family I didn’t know; another close friend told me last week, after her niece survived a suicide shot, that her nephew had been killed while running across a freeway. The suffering that accompanied these events!
Before I could remember too many other deaths from this year, I chose to go back to the deceitfully peaceful delusion of nobody close to me dying recently. And then, in the days after I had that thought, people all around started dying. A friend’s mother died, in her eighties, cancer. I didn’t know her, but I know how devoted her daughter was. Days later another friend’s mother, also a friend of mine and a local legend, pollution scientist Theo Colborn died after a grueling decline, working hard even into her last month to extend her dire warning about the potential demise of the human species. We weren’t close friends, but I’d known and admired her for decades.
Then the deaths came closer. Another dear friend’s brother-in-law died the other day after struggling with numerous debilitating diseases for years. I’d heard him play in Key West where we visited together years ago, and listened with compassion to her laments about his choices over the past year. A week ago my next door neighbor suffered a massive stroke, and last Thursday she died in the hospital where she’d been airlifted across the mountains. Friday morning, my good friend Rick died in California, finally, after going without food for six weeks. He discovered he had stage 4 prostate cancer early this spring, and faced it with courage and heart, heading for the light.
And then Joe Cocker died last night. He was a neighbor, of sorts, another local legend. I met him a few times, we had some mutual friends. Some of them are on the radio now, playing his songs and offering tributes. Of all the people I know of personally who died over the past two weeks (like an epidemic), Joe was certainly the most famous. His name is already top in today’s headlines, and trending on social media. He’s the only one of them who will get mention on the nightly news. And he leaves millions of fans each with their own level of private grief.
All my other friends, or relations of friends, who have died these past two weeks (this past year), won’t be on the national news but they leave their own personal trail of grief. Even Theo, whose contributions to science will likely have more profound effects on the planet eventually than Joe Cocker’s music, didn’t get national news coverage that I could see, though The Denver Post and a number of online sites and environmental groups gave her fitting tributes.
Each of these people, famous or not, will be memorialized within their families and communities; each of them have been loved deeply by some, and have influenced many others throughout their lives in some ways they might have known, and in other ways they probably never had a clue. The actions of their lives rippled outward from every living moment, intersecting with lives they knew and didn’t know, and sometimes rippling farther and further than they could have imagined, to touch people they never knew existed. Each of these people touched me, peripherally or profoundly, with their lives, their talents, their souls, their sufferings. Each of them will be grieved and missed equally by those who loved them.
The sense I had two weeks ago of surprise, relief, lightness, that death hadn’t touched me much in the past year is gone, dead itself. People close to me in one way or another have been dying all year. I know that I am not the center of anything except my one dog’s world, but it sure feels like I get slapped in the face with reality’s hard backhand whenever I articulate some delusion of good fortune.
It’s hard enough to get through the day, even in this beautiful corner of paradise where I live, with awareness of all the murders around the planet every day: from schools full of children killed by terrorists or a lone lunatic, to the toll of wars across the globe; from cops killing to cop killings; from domestic violence to random violence to stand-your-ground; and that’s just from an anthropocentric view.
All the digging and all the scraping through the flesh of our only planet; all the displaced and slaughtered species, many of whom are crucial to our own survival and all of whom share the inherent value of all living beings; all the poisons seeping, spilling, and spewing into air and water, creeping into food, every species’ food, making toxic the three elements essential to all life; all the need and greed destroying the miracle of this fragile living globe, spinning around a sun gyring through a galaxy…
It’s hard enough, I say, to get through even a beautiful day knowing and feeling all this loss, without the stunning blade of natural or accidental death slicing close as well. How do we go on, day to day, knowing that someday, maybe tomorrow, the person or pet or place we love the most will die? How do we follow our plans through our lives knowing that eventually everyone we love will die?
We seize the day. When we are feeling happy, or lucky, or blessed, we revel in it while it lasts. When we know that death is just around the corner, always, for someone, that suffering comes around for everybody turn by turn, we can only get through the good days, the happy times, the illusion of contentment, by making the most of it in the fleeting moment. Knowing that suffering will come around for us again, we owe it to ourselves to celebrate good times, indeed.