Of Life and Death and a Week
Author’s note: I wrote this about three years ago upon the passing of my friend, David Farris. David was a friend from church and a longtime member of the choir. In remembrance, an anthem was commissioned and this morning it was performed for the first time. So, on this occasion, I thought it appropriate to reprise this post.
I learn a lot from my daughter. Not necessarily anything that she explicitly teaches me, but many things that I learn – if only of myself – because I have a daughter.
On Tuesday, I learned that I was going to have pizza for dinner.
I’m not one of those parents who claims that having a child gives me special insight into the nature of man or society or anything, but I know that it has altered, or at least, added to my perspective. As with most (all?) changes in life, the effect of parenthood is expansive.
On Monday, I came across the story of Bill Zeller. He was a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton. He was a computer whiz, a brilliant programmer. At the age of 5, he was raped, repeatedly. 23 years later, in January, he hanged himself. He left behind a heartbreakingly eloquent suicide note – posted to his web site, emailed to friends and reproduced here. I am not so scared as a parent that tales of childhood trauma paralyze me; nonetheless, tales of childhood trauma hit me quite hard. His note is disturbing, honest (valiant even, in its own way) and wonderfully balanced. I say ‘wonderfully’ because I think it is this quality that demonstrates the measure of a person that he was, even if he was too damaged to understand or persevere.
On Tuesday afternoon, two and a half hours before I was to pick up my daughter (my wife had a meeting at 5:00), an email arrived in my inbox. It was from my minister, and the subject line was merely the name of one of our congregants. This man was about two decades my senior, but I would still call him my friend. We sat on committees together, we had sat beside each other in the church choir and we had chatted many, many (many) times.
David was found in his bed Tuesday afternoon; he had passed away.
David was a wonderful man. He was caring, friendly and vibrant. He was always willing to help, no matter the cause, and treated all his friends like family. Two years ago when I was made homeless by fire, David was one of the very first people to contact me to check in and offer help. He exemplified caring and my life will be worse without him… but I am a better person for having known him.
His death was the sort of event that was shocking but, in retrospect, not completely unforeseeable. He was not old, but he was not young. He was in good health, generally, but he had been sick for the past month (though, I’d assumed it was nothing too serious and he seemed better). His death is shocking for more than the obvious reasons. He was a source of life, and it is inconceivable that such a source has expired.
The message was sent at 2:26. I was in a meeting and returned to my desk at 2:31. I was stunned, tears emerging on my cheek. I emailed our minister and afterward had to re-read the email, thinking I may have misread it and just sent a message grounded not in reality.
Sadly, with each reading, and there were many, it just reinforced the fact that David was gone.
Shortly after 5:00, I picked up my daughter. My wife informed me that I would be having pizza for dinner – as my daughter had already declared as much. Last year, we had much trouble getting her to eat, so whenever she is eager for specific food, we tend to acquiesce… not that I’m against ordering pizza (and my daughter stipulated that she and I would be ordering pizza).
Yesterday morning, preparing for work, I packed most of the leftover pizza for lunch.
Yesterday afternoon, about 24 hours after learning of David’s death, I received an email from my wife. My daughter had just “called” and ordered me pizza. She has one of our old cell phones that she uses as a toy, and she had opened it and said, as transcribed by my wife:
“Hello? Yeah. Yeah yeah. Yeahyeahyeahyeah… Yeah yeah yeah. Yeah. Yeahyeahyeahyeahyeah. Pizza? Yeah.”
This is the sort of moment of understated joy that, hopefully, punctuate all our lives.
About three hours before that message, I was about to have my lunch of leftover pizza. I recall looking at the time on my computer at 12:15 and thinking that it’d be a good time to have lunch. Before doing that, I checked in at the Commons, and noticed that Peter Jaworski left a comment about the Liberty Summer Seminar story. There was a bit of back-and-forth with him, and then I threw up this quick post. At that point, it was time to eat, but first I grabbed my coat and left the office to go get a coke.
At some point between the comment I left and travelling down the elevator, this happened:
I had, about 16 years earlier, witnessed the driver of a car with a person trapped underneath be exhorted to stop.
I had turned left after leaving my building (I would have been on the sidewalk on the left of the picture) during this. As I passed the truck, I saw a leg underneath. That was all I needed to see.
News reports say that the man was struck and pinned under an axle. He convulsed at first, but by the time I was there, he was motionless. Apparently, he had a faint pulse when emergency workers arrived, but was gone in the ambulance ride.
There were numerous people on cell phones, calling for help. There were people running to whatever nearby doctors offices they could think of. There was a soldier in his camouflage kneeling beside the truck, just passed the second set of tires. It looked like he was trying to talk to the victim.
I quickly walked on. I knew there was nothing I could do. I knew that rubbernecking would be of no help, and might actually be a hindrance.
It is disturbing to see a man dying, knowing you can do nothing to help… knowing the best you can do is just leave and not be in the way.
So this week – a week bookended by my wedding anniversary and my birthday – is a week of stark existential relief, of life and death, of strangers and friends. And of my daughter, being a subplot of living. I’m left thinking of David, and his family. I’m left thinking of this unknown man, and his family. I’m thinking of the driver of a dump truck, who, yesterday morning, never would have guessed that he would soon take a life. I think of his family, and how they also must be suffering.
So, what’s my point? Unfortunately, I do not have one. I have no grand insight or philosophical awakening to share. All I can share are my prayers. My prayers for the family and friends of the dead, and my prayers for those who must suffer as the survivors of tragedy.
There is so much pain, joy, death and life in this world. There is tragedy, wonder, revelation and mystery. We know not why there is happiness and sorrow, why they combine as they do, and what we are to do with them.
I am left with my daughter, the manifestation of my love, persistence, fragility, evanescence and eternity.
And all she does is laugh.