Cherish the people that matter in life
There have been a number of high-profile deaths on the national stage lately — Senator John McCain, President George H.W. Bush, civility in politics in general — and I thought it was interesting to watch our reactions to them. Some of us quietly mourned or paid their respects. Others, like a “Views on the News” contributor last December, danced on their graves. Still others, like President Liebowitz, didn’t seem to notice at all.
A little bit closer to home, my great-aunt Irene passed away over the break. She was hit by a car in Inglewood, California, where she had been living for the past five years.
Irene had a full life, one in which my involvement could best be described as peripheral. She was 87 years old and was born in Missouri but lived most of her life in Texarkana, Texas. She’d served in the Air Force, married, had a son and daughter, and, much later, moved from Texas to Inglewood to care for her ailing sister, my grandmother. It was in her role as caretaker that I met her.
I won’t pretend that I knew her better than I did. I only met her a half-dozen times: every time we drove down California from the Bay Area to Los Angeles to see my mother’s family. I never liked to visit my grandmother, who was — and remains — senile, but Irene made the visits enjoyable in a way that no one else could. We’d visit the usual LA tourist sites together during the day, go out for dinner in the evening and crack jokes while sitting on her U-shaped couches before leaving for the night. This pattern would repeat itself, sometimes several days in a row, about once every 18 months, most recently last summer.
Irene was one of the smallest people I have ever met. Even so, every time I saw her, she seemed larger than life. In contrast to my infirm grandmother, she was razor-sharp, quick with a joke and easy to talk to. She had a pair of glasses that seemed to make her eyes bigger and more perceptive, a full head of bright white hair that I sometimes compared to an Afro and a Southern twang in her voice that never failed to put me at ease when I heard it.
The first time we met face-to-face, I asked her where she was from.
“Texarkana,” she answered cheerfully.
“Which side, Texas or Arkansas?” I knew the answer was Texas, of course. I’d had to write her thank-you letters as a child.
“Don’t be smart, boy.” She knew, too.
She somehow became fixated on the idea that I would become a successful writer, and she boasted about how she would be the first one to read my book. I’m certain that I could never have lived up to her expectations.
The last time the two of us spoke was in November. My mother had called her to wish her and her sister a happy Thanksgiving, and since I was on hand, I also talked with her for a few minutes. I can’t remember what exactly our conversation was about, and I don’t know how much information really passed between us. All I remember is that I was happy to hear her voice again, and now I can only hope the reverse was true as well.
For those of us not blessed with a belief in an afterlife, death is a void, a moment after which we will no longer be alive, forever. To me, that emptiness is pretty scary. For some, it manifests as a question mark, which is arguably more frightening.
Through the 21st century and beyond, our understanding of science will likely hurtle forward at an ever-increasing pace, but even as every other question is answered, the mystery of what comes after life will probably continue to elude us. Death is the one problem that can’t be measured with data, lab equipment and scientific trials. The only people who know what it is have experienced it, and they are no longer around to tell us. In large part because of this uncertainty, we don’t like to think about it. Why would we? In the words of one of my friends, it’s a period ending the sentence of life, and no one likes endings.
At a fundamental level, we live and die as individuals. Each of us is alone in his or her own head; we don’t know the thoughts and feelings of others. If we’re not careful, that can lead to loneliness. Indeed, loneliness is becoming something of an epidemic in the United States today; that it’s something that one out of every two Americans experiences on a regular basis. And, curiously, loneliness is tied to partisan politics, my usual hunting ground; some who experience social isolation report turning to political tribalism — “us vs. them” — for the sense of community, the “us,” it provides. As this happens, the number of people that we know who are like Irene only seems to shrink.
I don’t think that there’s a single, overarching meaning to life, but if there were, I think it would be to try and prevent this loneliness by surrounding ourselves with others that we care about. Humans are social creatures, and it’s impossible to replace the feeling of simply having friends and family around. Some of us are even lucky enough to love someone else more than we love ourselves, and to be loved in the same way. At the end of the day, we can’t stop ourselves from passing on, but we can leave behind the special moments that we’ve shared.
If I have a point in all this, it’s this: Cherish the people in your life. Don’t take anyone for granted. If you have an extended family member, or a high school friend that you’ve lost touch with, find an excuse to talk to him or her. It might take some work, and it might be awkward at first, but it will ultimately be worthwhile.