I lost a good friend two days ago to one of those lightning-fast, unpredictable deaths that leave us all reeling, wondering how someone so vital, so apparently healthy, could suddenly be gone. Diana, a 47-year-old history teacher at my school, was driving home on the last day of school, and apparently felt ill and pulled her car over to the side of the road. She was later found there, unconscious. She had suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage from which she died eight days later.
I am not a person who forms friendships easily, something about myself I don't like and don't completely understand, but Diana was someone who reached out to me pretty much from the moment she was hired, about twelve years ago. I've taught two AP classes (biology and environmental science) for more years than I will willingly admit, and when Diana was assigned to teach AP World History, she actively solicited advice from her colleagues who had more experience than she did in these college-level curricula. This began a friendship that expanded into a shared interest in human ecology (and the writing of Jared Diamond), medieval European history, music, and fiction. About a month ago, she read one of my novels, and liked it so much she was pushing me to write a sequel (which I have actually begun to work on); and my fiction inspired her to try her hand at writing. The last week of school she sent me the first ten pages of a historical novel, which was compelling and well-written, and said she was going to work on it more this summer.
The best-laid plans of mice and men, Robert Burns famously said, gang aft agley. Or as Thomas à Kempis put it, "Man proposes, God disposes" -- an aphorism I agree with in principle, if not in literal detail. We plan our lives far in advance -- taking an Alaskan cruise in summer of 2014, going to China after we retire, and so on. If anyone asked, we'd say that of course we know that it might not happen; any number of circumstances, up to and including death, could intervene. But we have to keep planning, somehow, even in that knowledge. Funny creatures, humans.
When I posted on Facebook that Diana had fallen grievously ill, and then that she had died, this elicited an outpouring of sympathy that was truly amazing. I was the recipient of well-wishes and words of comfort from hundreds of people. All of this has left me pondering how I can wrap my mind around the concept of death and loss. Is there a way to fit this into the context of the understandable?
Of course, being an atheist and a rationalist, I don't have recourse to the supernaturalist claim that even tragic events like this one somehow fit into God's plan for the world. That comfort is beyond my reach, and (to my mind) never sounded like much more than an equivocation to me in any case. You'll hear the devout say that sure, some good, kind, honest people die young, and some unkind, greedy, cruel people live long, prosperous lives, but still it is all part of the divine purpose. To me, this says no more, really, than "we don't know why but would like to think there's a reason, because it sure seems like a crappy outcome to us." On the other hand, the opposite end of the philosophical spectrum -- that unexpected deaths just happen, and mean no more than a bug hitting a windshield -- seems so bleak as to leave me wondering, "Why bother at all?"
After a couple of days of mulling the whole thing over, I think I've finally realized that what matters is how we change the world. I'm not talking about big changes, necessarily; people like Wangari Maathai, a hero of mine who died last year, are sadly few (and if you don't know who this amazing woman is, go here and prepare to be awed by what one dedicated human being can accomplish). What I'm talking about is the personal legacy of friendships that you leave. Who have you taught, learned from, connected with, treated with kindness? Who have you cared for or received care from? Whose life have you, through your attention, made a little more beautiful, a little less painful?
I don't, honestly, have the need to have it all make sense. My belief is that in the common definition of the word, it doesn't make sense. Death comes for us all eventually, an idea I don't find frightening so much as incomprehensible. Maybe we're not built to think long about the big existential questions; what matters most is the here and now, how we can live our lives and care for the ones around us. The lesson I took from Diana's death is to make every day count, because you never know how many you have left. Hug your children, your significant other, your family members, your pets -- hell, hug total strangers if you want to, because this world has too damn much pain and uncertainty and not nearly enough love and comfort. Take care of yourselves and the people in your life. Be kind to each other, even little kindnesses like letting someone go ahead of you in the checkout line at the grocery store. And in the end, if your life can end with people getting together -- as I did the evening after I learned of Diana's death -- and holding up a glass of their favorite libations, and saying a few words of thanks for how you made their world a better place, you will have done what you could.