DEATH, THE WISE TEACHER
My friend Howard Bragman died on Saturday night. The morning news reports hailed him as a public relations titan and noted his prowess in the field. They gave his age – 66 – and the cause of death as leukemia. But they couldn’t capture the shock that all of his friends felt a couple of weeks ago when we got the news that he had suddenly fallen ill. I spoke with him very recently, shortly before that unexpected diagnosis, and he told me about an up-coming trip to Mexico, he spoke about his husband Michael and how he was so grateful to have found love again after a painful breakup over a year ago. Time seemed open and endless. Plans could be made. We’d get together when he returned from Mexico. Then he went to his doctor for a gum infection, a blood test revealed the most aggressive form of leukemia, and he was immediately taken to the hospital and put on chemo. A week later he was gone.
I got the news before dawn, the sky still struggling to become light. Death ushers in memories that come like a flood, but it also brings time to a standstill. I watched the sky get light, watched the half moon fade above me. When I took my dog for a walk there were so many birds out, filling the air with sound, that I wondered why on this morning there seemed to be more birds. But maybe they’re always there in those numbers, maybe I was just paying more attention. That’s the thing about death – it slows us down, allows our ears to hear more and our eyes to see more clearly all that is around us. Because in those moments we get how truly fragile this life is, how quickly, unexpectedly, it can end, and how mysterious the whole dance is. Howard was younger than I, he was vibrant and happy and occasionally grumpy…and now he’s gone. Death is a powerful teacher if we allow it to be, and its lessons are at once harmonious and dissonant. Howard died with loved ones around him. Others are not so lucky.
I came back from my walk to the worsening news out of Turkey and Syria. The death count is now over 33,000. The wails of those left behind pierce the heart. There is no making sense of this kind of catastrophe. But maybe that’s Death’s lesson in the dust and the rubble of incomprehensible tragedy– that we can’t make sense of it, we have to instead grab onto moments that shine through the darkness. A child pulled from a collapsed building, a family unearthed after 100 hours buried under fallen debris. And the people risking their own lives to try and find anyone who might still be alive.
Death teaches us that we don’t really know anything about life and the end of it, and we’re probably not meant to. We’re meant to stand in front of the mystery of it all, we’re meant to dance with grief even when its arms feel cold and imprisoning. We’re meant to never take a moment for granted – which is a hard lesson for all of us – but when you see how quickly life can be cut short, moments are all we have. And they are what’s left for the people who stay behind, who look up to the sky, listen to birdsong, and wonder what’s on the other side of this puzzling thing we know as life.