Saturday, March 29, 2008

A Neighbor, A Death, and Thoughts Thereof

This morning, I was walking our dog and noticed a line of cars in front of a neighbor's house. All of the people walking up to the house were dressed in dark colors and the mood seemed very somber. Arriving home, I told Mary that I had the feeling that someone had died. We checked the local obituary and discovered right away that our neighbor---a man of 57 in the prime of his life---had indeed died twelve days ago of cardiac complications. Luckily, the memorial service was today, and we were able to attend and join the community of mourners.

The service was held in a local church, the altar still brimming with Easter flowers. The music of Van Morrison played in the background as people filed in and found their seats amongst the pews, and the service itself was a lovely event, replete with moving readings, poignant music and poetry, funny stories, and shared remembrances. The wife of the deceased spoke of their thirty years of marriage, and his adult children each took a turn to honor their beloved father whose absence will be all too keen as they themselves move toward their own parenthood.

Over the course of the service, I remarked to myself how this particular event was just what it should be. For those familiar with the person who had died, it was a reminder of cherished stories and of his particular idiosyncrasies which made him unique. With friends coming from near and far, I'm sure some new stories came to light and provided even more elucidation of his very singular mark upon the world.

For those of us less familiar with our neighbor, the service provided a very intimate snapshot of a life well lived, and the varied sharings left one with a very strong impression of a man, a family, a life, and a brilliant personal legacy.

Mary and I did not know this gentleman well, but we would cross paths with him and his wife while we walked our dogs over the years, and I recall that she even came to our house for a party once upon a time. Luckily for us, the last time we saw him was in the autumn. We were sitting by the pond near our house, and he sauntered over with his dog and sat himself down next to us, something quite uncharacteristic for a man who was generally much more socially reserved. I recall that we were at first feeling rather private, but he was very good company that day and we enjoyed our conversation with him very much, and never saw him again throughout the subsequent long and cold winter. What a blessing that we had that opportunity to be with him, and how glad I am that we have that memory of our last interaction.

Now, a new widow is in our midst, and within the privacy of her home, she will continue this process of grieving that is only weeks old. She and her children will go to the university to clean out his office, go through his papers, and will perhaps be at once perplexed and overjoyed by the things that they discover. How little thought most of us must give to the fact that, upon our untimely death, our loved ones will need to rifle through our things and settle the dust of our lives. There will be much to settle in that household after such a creative and productive life, and I do not envy that family the difficult task at hand.

With two dear friends so recently in surgery and now the death of our neighbor, I'm reminded quite starkly of the fleeting nature of life. As I struggle with chronic pain and some recently significant depression, I hold my own life up for close examination and wonder what conclusions would be drawn about me at my own funeral. I know I need to smile and laugh more. I also know I need to have more fun and take time to relax. While I struggle to earn enough money, I can say with certainty that no one at my funeral would begrudge my earning power or lack thereof. Still, life proffers many challenges, and we strive to honor our earthly responsibilities while also taking time to smell the roses.

Life is tenuous at best, and this week's experiences in my own life demonstrate that it can be saved or snuffed out at any moment. I am aware of this tenuousness, and I only wish to make that awareness something that informs my every breath.

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