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Of Life and Death and a Week

Author’s note: I wrote this about three years ago upon the passing of my friend, David Farris. David was a friend from church and a longtime member of the choir. In remembrance, an anthem was commissioned and this morning it was performed for the first time. So, on this occasion, I thought it appropriate to reprise this post.

I learn a lot from my daughter. Not necessarily anything that she explicitly teaches me, but many things that I learn – if only of myself – because I have a daughter.

On Tuesday, I learned that I was going to have pizza for dinner.

I’m not one of those parents who claims that having a child gives me special insight into the nature of man or society or anything, but I know that it has altered, or at least, added to my perspective. As with most (all?) changes in life, the effect of parenthood is expansive.

On Monday, I came across the story of Bill Zeller. He was a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton. He was a computer whiz, a brilliant programmer. At the age of 5, he was raped, repeatedly. 23 years later, in January, he hanged himself. He left behind a heartbreakingly eloquent suicide note – posted to his web site, emailed to friends and reproduced here. I am not so scared as a parent that tales of childhood trauma paralyze me; nonetheless, tales of childhood trauma hit me quite hard. His note is disturbing, honest (valiant even, in its own way) and wonderfully balanced. I say ‘wonderfully’ because I think it is this quality that demonstrates the measure of a person that he was, even if he was too damaged to understand or persevere.

On Tuesday afternoon, two and a half hours before I was to pick up my daughter (my wife had a meeting at 5:00), an email arrived in my inbox. It was from my minister, and the subject line was merely the name of one of our congregants. This man was about two decades my senior, but I would still call him my friend. We sat on committees together, we had sat beside each other in the church choir and we had chatted many, many (many) times.

David was found in his bed Tuesday afternoon; he had passed away.

David was a wonderful man. He was caring, friendly and vibrant. He was always willing to help, no matter the cause, and treated all his friends like family. Two years ago when I was made homeless by fire, David was one of the very first people to contact me to check in and offer help. He exemplified caring and my life will be worse without him… but I am a better person for having known him.

His death was the sort of event that was shocking but, in retrospect, not completely unforeseeable. He was not old, but he was not young. He was in good health, generally, but he had been sick for the past month (though, I’d assumed it was nothing too serious and he seemed better). His death is shocking for more than the obvious reasons. He was a source of life, and it is inconceivable that such a source has expired.

The message was sent at 2:26. I was in a meeting and returned to my desk at 2:31. I was stunned, tears emerging on my cheek. I emailed our minister and afterward had to re-read the email, thinking I may have misread it and just sent a message grounded not in reality.

Sadly, with each reading, and there were many, it just reinforced the fact that David was gone.

Shortly after 5:00, I picked up my daughter. My wife informed me that I would be having pizza for dinner – as my daughter had already declared as much. Last year, we had much trouble getting her to eat, so whenever she is eager for specific food, we tend to acquiesce… not that I’m against ordering pizza (and my daughter stipulated that she and I would be ordering pizza).

Yesterday morning, preparing for work, I packed most of the leftover pizza for lunch.

Yesterday afternoon, about 24 hours after learning of David’s death, I received an email from my wife. My daughter had just “called” and ordered me pizza. She has one of our old cell phones that she uses as a toy, and she had opened it and said, as transcribed by my wife:

“Hello?  Yeah.  Yeah yeah.  Yeahyeahyeahyeah…  Yeah yeah yeah.  Yeah.  Yeahyeahyeahyeahyeah. Pizza?  Yeah.”

This is the sort of moment of understated joy that, hopefully, punctuate all our lives.

About three hours before that message, I was about to have my lunch of leftover pizza. I recall looking at the time on my computer at 12:15 and thinking that it’d be a good time to have lunch. Before doing that, I checked in at the Commons, and noticed that Peter Jaworski left a comment about the Liberty Summer Seminar story. There was a bit of back-and-forth with him, and then I threw up this quick post. At that point, it was time to eat, but first I grabbed my coat and left the office to go get a coke.

At some point between the comment I left and travelling down the elevator, this happened:

accident1-300x150I walked out the front door of my office building to a crowd and some trucks stopped on the road. I saw people talking to the driver of one of the trucks (pictured), it appeared, telling him to stop.

I had, about 16 years earlier, witnessed the driver of a car with a person trapped underneath be exhorted to stop.

I had turned left after leaving my building (I would have been on the sidewalk on the left of the picture) during this. As I passed the truck, I saw a leg underneath. That was all I needed to see.

News reports say that the man was struck and pinned under an axle. He convulsed at first, but by the time I was there, he was motionless. Apparently, he had a faint pulse when emergency workers arrived, but was gone in the ambulance ride.

There were numerous people on cell phones, calling for help. There were people running to whatever nearby doctors offices they could think of. There was a soldier in his camouflage kneeling beside the truck, just passed the second set of tires. It looked like he was trying to talk to the victim.

I quickly walked on. I knew there was nothing I could do. I knew that rubbernecking would be of no help, and might actually be a hindrance.

It is disturbing to see a man dying, knowing you can do nothing to help… knowing the best you can do is just leave and not be in the way.

So this week – a week bookended by my wedding anniversary and my birthday – is a week of stark existential relief, of life and death, of strangers and friends. And of my daughter, being a subplot of living. I’m left thinking of David, and his family. I’m left thinking of this unknown man, and his family. I’m thinking of the driver of a dump truck, who, yesterday morning, never would have guessed that he would soon take a life. I think of his family, and how they also must be suffering.

So, what’s my point? Unfortunately, I do not have one. I have no grand insight or philosophical awakening to share. All I can share are my prayers. My prayers for the family and friends of the dead, and my prayers for those who must suffer as the survivors of tragedy.

There is so much pain, joy, death and life in this world. There is tragedy, wonder, revelation and mystery. We know not why there is happiness and sorrow, why they combine as they do, and what we are to do with them.

I am left with my daughter, the manifestation of my love, persistence, fragility, evanescence and eternity.

And all she does is laugh.

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4 thoughts on “Of Life and Death and a Week

  1. I don’t have a lot to say here. Since our own brush with tragedy last year when my daughter’s friend was killed in a wreck that my daughter just barely survived, I find myself thinking about the end more often than I would like to. My biggest fear is that I go with no warning, no opportunity to say goodbye properly. All I can do to remedy that fear is to remind my loved ones every day of just how much they mean to me and for my kids it is about trying to teach them as much as I can whenever I get a chance.

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  2. I’ve driven by auto collisions on the freeway that were surely fatal and seen other incidents of recent death, but the vivid memory that springs to mind is taking a sightseeing drive one fine afternoon to Portuguese Bend near Rancho Palos Verdes. I stopped at an overlook with my camera, ready to drink in the view all the way to Catalina Island, when I looked down at the beach and surf. Paramedics were slowly carrying a stretcher with a sheet over it across the rocky beach, finding the switchback path that led up the cliffside. Whether the corpse on the stretcher had been the victim of an accident, an assault, or a suicide I never found out. But I stood there until they were out of view, transfixed, since ti seemed that walking away or breaking my stare would somehow have been disrespectful.

    It seemed that I owed my sorrow to the recently dead. The way this post makes me feel I owe Mr. Zellar my sorrow. The way it makes me feel I owe Jonathan’s friend David my sorrow. The way I feel I owe my sorrow to the unnamed traffic victim Jonathan describes towards the end of the post. I did not know any of those people, and accordingly there is no doubt that in a fairly short amount of time after posting this comment, I will stop mourning them. I know that my sorrow does them no good, nor does it do Jonathan or anyone else reading this comment any good.

    The only possible beneficiary of this sorrow, then, is myself. Perversely, I wonder if is this the same sort of sadness that comes from a tragic work of art — is there some sort of uplift in it? Perhaps that doesn’t matter, again, because I should feel worse if I did not pay the debt of sorrow as opposed to experiencing it, the indifference of the world and of the others who share it with me notwithstanding.

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    • I think that you owe the sorrow you feel to our “pack.” (I could use “herd,” which would convey largely the same thing, except that we are more wolf than elk.) We are an animal that runs in packs (or a pack, if we have a global enough view). And we probably have a higher abstract appreciation of the others in our pack than do other creatures of their packs.

      Had you not been looking down at the beach, you would have marveled at the view, but seeing a member of the pack downed awakened your connection to the pack — and the sorrow is owed to, and given to, the pack. A wolf might not have felt it at all in that situation and you were able to walk away and not be deeply changed. But, for me, that moment, that emotion, that debt, the toll you heard and the toll you paid is what makes us human. In our best moments we do not turn our backs on the other members of the pack.

      “The death of any man diminishes me.” Donne (who said all of this much better).

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