Last week a friend of mine experienced one of the worst things that can happen to a parent: outliving your very young child. The past 16 months of her thread in life’s tapestry is particularly tragic and heart-breaking. It started a year ago March when her son, seven years old then, was diagnosed with a brain tumor and given 12 months to live. Then, last November, her husband died at age 35 in an unexpected asthma attack. At that time, she was pregnant with their third child, a girl born this past May.
Last week this part of the thread finally ended having taken both men from her young life and leaving her to raise her new born and five-year-old daughter. If there is anything that leavens this heavy loaf, it is that she has the strong support of family and many friends. She is well-loved, which doesn’t balance the scales or make it easier to bear, but provides some solace. Her journey also should serve to remind us all just how rich and blessed our lives are and how we must cherish and appreciate each day.
This was not the only death that touched me this past week. In Arlington, Texas, a 39-year-old baseball fan reached out to catch a ball tossed to him by Texas Ranger Josh Hamilton and fell 20 feet to his death. His six-year-old son was with him at the time. (In May, another baseball fan died in a fall at a Colorado Rockies game.)
If you live long enough, people you know die. The math is inexorable.
The first close one I knew to slip off the sandbar was my uncle, who died back in 1992. There was also a distant relative I’d never met (or to be honest, heard of) who was at the Pentagon on 9/11 (not funny how 2001 didn’t turn out like the movie said it would). He died later as a result of trauma suffered then. (He was deaf and didn’t know what was happening. I confess I’m not clear on the details as to the extent of the trauma; how much was physical, how much was psychological. On some level, it hardly matters; he was another of many lost that day.)
In the past decade, two friends slipped off the sandbar and were washed away. One was a co-worker and friend; someone I’d camped with, partied with and hung out with. He died of a brain tumor. Another was the wife of a couple of friends from our “Circle of Friends.” She died suddenly, unexpectedly, from a brain aneurysm. These were the first two of my peers to vanish downstream.
Picture a very swift torrent, a river rushing down between rocky walls. There is a long, shallow bar of sand and gravel that runs right down the middle of the river. It is under water. You are born and you have to stand on that narrow, submerged bar, where everyone stands. The ones born before you, the ones older than you, are upriver from you. The younger ones stand braced on the bar downriver. And the whole long bar is slowly moving down that river of time, washing away at the upstream end and building up downstream.
Your time, the time of all your contemporaries, schoolmates, your loves and your adversaries, is that part of the shifting bar on which you stand. And it is crowded at first. You can see the way it thins out, upstream from you. The old ones are washed away and their bodies go swiftly by, like logs in the current. Downstream where the younger ones stand thick, you can see them flounder, lose footing, wash away. Always there is more room where you stand, but always the swift water grows deeper, and you feel the shift of the sand and the gravel under your feet as the river wears it away. Someone looking for a safer place can nudge you off balance, and you are gone. Someone who has stood beside you for a long time gives a forlorn cry and you reach to catch their hand, but the fingertips slide away and they are gone.
There are the sounds in the rocky gorge, the roar of the water, the shifting, gritty sound of sand and gravel underfoot, the forlorn cries of despair as the nearby ones, and the ones upstream, are taken by the current. Some old ones who stand on a good place, well braced, understanding currents and balance, last a long time. A Churchill, fat cigar atilt, sourly amused at his own endurance and, in the end, indifferent to rivers and the rage of waters. Far downstream from you are the thin, startled cries of the ones who never got planted, never got set, never quite understood the message of the torrent.
I think that is the best image of life and death that I know. The river of time ultimately washes us all away. Time takes us all; some sooner, some later.
In closing, in honor of an eight-year-old boy who slipped from the sandbar far too early, a bit of the Graham Nash (of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) song, Teach Your Children. It’s a beautiful song, and it keeps running through my mind:
Teach your parents well, their children’s hell will slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams, the one they picked, the one you’re known by.
Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.