Death, grief and the end of life, have been major themes in my life recently. Last week a 23 year-old man collapsed at the Pittsburgh Marathon and became its first casualty. Friends and family were shocked, there had been no personal or family history to indicate his risk, and the story became international news. “Such a young man, such a terrible tragedy,” people chanted to one another. Afterwards doctors discovered an undetected heart defect, most likely present from birth, but with no warning signs, the man had no reason to suspect his vulnerability.
A few days later I received an email from a former high school boyfriend’s wife that after successful back surgery he had collapsed in his hospital room and medical personnel were unable to revive him. We had recently reconnected through the Internet and exchanged a series of emails. A couple of days before his wife’s email, I had received an envelope in the mail from him with a photo of the two of us, fifty years ago, formally dressed for a school dance. His comment, “Where did all those years go?”
Yesterday, a friend left a message on my cell phone. A mutual acquaintance, probably younger then either of us, is in her last hours. She had been fighting cancer but the call was a request for prayers to help her cross peacefully. I could respond to that request. As a mother of two adult children who have predeceased me, I have had the honor of being present at this ceremonial time, and I know it to be holy. In fact, when death comes too swiftly, it can be hard to not have the time to say goodbye.
We don’t admit it often out loud, but death is one of life’s few certainties. It’s lessons include an encouragement to savior life, every beautiful, terrible moment of it, and to learn to dance with the uncertainty of when, as John Donne suggested, the bell will begin tolling for thee.