If you’re reading this, we already have something in common. We’ve faced death – on our own or with people we love. We’ve fought its gravitational pull. Felt Fear pacing behind us, thuggish and thick-necked, all muscle and bluster. Either we were able to turn and walk away from the edge, or we had to let go of someone we love. Sometimes we’re asked to stand in front of it for long stretches, examining death from every angle like fallout from some distant, unknowable planet.
In the past four months, a lot has happened. My father learned he had abdominal cancer, had major surgery to remove it, and has started chemotherapy (so far, so good). I attended two funerals, one for a vibrant five year-old boy named Lee with a rare heart condition, and one for a mentor/friend named Skip who was gracious and wise. Instead of taking a planned, cross-country trip to say goodbye to our beautiful and terminally ill friend Allison, I had to settle for writing an awkward, inadequate email. I watched Alzheimer’s affect my father-in-law’s ability to enjoy the activities he loves. I contemplated a world without Bowie and Rickman and Frey. And, like you, I stood in front of my television and watched – yet again – the manifestation of violence and hatred take the lives of innocent people I will never know.
I’m sick of death and fear and cancer and heart disease and Alzheimer’s and violence and vitriol and all of the other terrible things that reach up the sides of the abyss and snake around our ankles. I want to surround myself with the opposite of these things. So I look for stories. I want to tell them, share them, go beneath the surface with the people in them. Then I want to see if I can find something in these stories that reflects something in mine. This is how I take on what scares me and that which I cannot control.
My dad was in the hospital for five-plus weeks, cared for by a team of incredible surgeons and healthcare providers. They became an extension of our family, as did the loved ones of other patients. We met a surgical resident who left a job on Wall Street to go to medical school so he could help cure people of the cancer that took his own dad’s life. One nurse – the one who let me ugly-cry on her shoulder – was a mother of toddler triplets and caretaker to two other adult relatives. A volunteer, there four days a week from 7 to 7, had recently been downsized from one of the big banks and said he was glad to finally have the time to help at the hospital. I rode the elevator with a pajama-clad, thirty-something year-old woman who had just left her six-month-old at home so she could spend the night at the hospital with her critically ill twin sister.
When my dad was recovering at our house, his friends – from high school, college, the Army, work life and current life – inquired after him regularly. Each time they’d get me on the phone, they’d tell me some new story I had never heard. I saw him through their eyes, not just my own, and they told me good, generous things that my dad had done – the sacrifices he had made – that I would never have known without them telling me.
You are never going to meet any of these people, or me, or my dad. I am never going to meet you or the people you love. It doesn’t matter. Through stories, even brief encounters that go beyond rote pleasantries, we have the privilege of knowing one another. We can remember and be remembered. What better way to put death and fear in their places than to honor what it is to be alive, to have truly lived?
Lisa Rubenson is a freelance writer living in Charlotte, NC. Her work has appeared online and in print in various publications. lisarubenson.com