Five years ago I had a conversation with death. It had been in the offing for a long time but I just couldn’t bring myself to meet the apparition in the spooky black robe; he scared me. It took the sudden demise of a dear friend to broker the meeting.
I was never a stranger to death. A tragic car accident took my brother when I was fourteen; I was orphaned well before mid-life and my sister – entwined forever in my heart and soul – passed from finite to infinite long before the actuary’s prescribed time. But for all the grieving and sadness accompanying these difficult losses, I was the third party to the event.
This time it was undeniably, excruciatingly personal.
My friend’s death was a precursor of what was to come. I had buried my head in the sand refusing to confront my mortality, but the bottom of the hourglass was filling rapidly. One day earlier Dick and I had talked and laughed about a project we were working on together. Now he was gone, his voice still recorded on my answering machine. When I erased the echo the full magnitude of John Donne’s famous poem made itself felt…each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind… ask not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.
In retrospect, I was prepared to hear the news about my friend’s sudden passing. When I saw it was Dick’s wife on the phone, I knew what she was about to tell me before I picked up the receiver. I felt my pal’s presence, his paranormal, astral-body journey through the universe to say goodbye.
When my friend’s wife hung up Death and I stayed on the phone. He told me what the future would bring. My focus was on the faint scent of the newly mown lawn under my window. In a conversation the length of a firefly’s spark we reached a benign detente.
We negotiated the terms in the spare Quaker style chapel in Nellysford, Virginia where the memorial was held for the man who was a kind and calming influence during my halcyon years of unmitigated ambition. Exhausted after a grueling early morning flight, a transfer of planes and a 100-mile taxi ride to the edge of nowhere, I capitulated. I wept for my friend; and for me.
I shook hands with Death and accepted the inevitable. He and I will dance. Just not quite yet.
It’s a bitter/sweet bargain. On one hand, the specter of death will visit from time to time as the men and women who shared the sweet memories of my life transition to pages of my ongoing memoir. I will grieve and weep at the cruelty of each loss; the torn piece of black cloth pinned to my label representing another chunk of my past, gone. Each phone call with the tremulous voice of a half-forgotten colleague or roommate will remind me life is shrinking smaller and smaller. My macabre sense of humor puts me in a New Yorker cartoon, sitting against a palm tree marooned on a sliver of an island, a shark fin circling lazily in the great ocean.
On the other hand, each passing would be a poignant reminder of the time we spent together; of our common experiences, both joyous and sad; of the feelings for each other shared on a deep, personal level. Memories would come rushing back, flooding me in appreciation and gratitude.
I would be reminded that every day is precious.