Sunday, August 23, 2009

As I Lay Thinking About Death

At the last high school reunion I attended, someone had the bizarre idea to create a memorial to all the people in the class, as well as those from the adjacent classes, who had died. It had roughly the same unsettling effect as the hagiography that's become part of the Academy Award ceremony, where they flash the famous faces who've passed on in the previous twelve months ("Richard Widmark died? When did that happen?").

On the sheet of poster paper, nicely laid out on a picnic table, I saw too many names I recognized — classmates, siblings of classmates, names of girls I'd dated, and names of girls I'd wanted to date. It shocked me anew that I'd gotten to the time in my life when I look at the ages in the obituary column and notice how close they are to my own.

It's only going to get worse. I've had close friends pass away, but not often: once when I was 21, again when I was 42. But those were on the upward slope of middle age. Now we're on the evening side of the mountain. One of my classmates since second grade passed away this year, in his early 50s, and I received via e-mail a link to his obituary. When I saw it, I couldn't help thinking, "Ah, the deluge begins."

In the 21st century, of course, we won't even have to wait until reunions to find out the death toll. With Facebook, the word about the sick, dead, and dying can spread even faster than before. Admittedly, though, there are kinks to work out; I received a Facebook message recently asking if I'd heard a rumor that a mutual friend had died in a hiking accident. Trying to confirm the rumor, I received the response: "Yes, it's true — but that was ten years ago."

That was disconcerting, but what is more disconcerting to me is my own ambivalence about death. The joyous part of me wouldn't mind hanging around another 50 years. The pragmatic part of me acknowledges that I've done almost everything I've wanted to do in my lifetime, including owning a convertible, swimming in a Tahitian lagoon, and sleeping with a virgin. (Shoot me, I'm a guy.) If I had to go soon, I'd have no regrets.

But then I'm back at the reunion, staring at the roll call of death and missing the missing. They're like the winners of a lottery you wouldn't want to enter. Against really high odds, they become famous and talked about, except for the wrong reason. Then, as time goes on, the odds start changing in all the Boomers' favor.

That's when death becomes more ordinary, and dare I say, desirable. I had a friend once, one of the older members of my college fraternity, who lived well into his 90s. He had an amazing life — graduating from Stanford to become a stockbroker in 1927, just before the stock market crash; becoming an itinerant agriculture buyer; going bankrupt; and eventually building a comfortable life for himself in San Francisco. But he outlived his younger brother, his wife, and most of his classmates.

That was life's bitter trade-off, he told me: the price of living a long time is having to say good-bye to all your friends as they leave. How sad to be the last one left at the reunion.

1 comment:

  1. I liked this post, Howard. In spite of the amount of time I've spent in the company of death, my thoughts on it continue to be unformed. However, I do know this: it's healthy and even important to contemplate it. A lot of folks don't - or try not to - and then when they have to confront it their challenge is compounded.