It’s pushing 1 a.m., and I have to be on the road in a little more than six hours, to make the hour drive to a dermatologist’s office to have stitches removed, the result of a small skin-cancer surgery last week. But I can’t sleep. I learned late this afternoon that a man I worked with more than a dozen years ago died today. I knew him kind of well for a couple years. He was the lead ad sales guy on a magazine for which I was a senior editor. Advertising and editorial departments on a magazine often get along together about as well as, say, congressional party leadership when TV cameras are rolling. But magazines can be boozy places (at least they once were), and even Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner probably share a mike during congressional karaoke nights. In the same way, Mark and I got to know each other as human beings during the course of our working relationship. Among our bonding experiences was the fact that our birthdays were only a month or so apart. This news of his death has taken me aback.
I learned the reality of death’s suddeness at an early age. My mother became very ill in the summer before my eighth birthday. About the time I was blowing out birthday-cake candles, in late September, I began wondering just how sick she was. My parents had divorced before I turned five, so I already knew that bad things really could happen, and I’d already developed the coping strategy of imagining the worst outcome any scenario might present, to force myself to live the experience emotionally before it was laid in front of me as a present to unwrap. I remember lying in my bed, at least one night, forcing myself to live through the possibility of my mother actually dying. However, I think even my imagination, active as it was, couldn’t wrap itself around all the implications of such a catastrophic event. This shortcoming on my part, however, could not prevent that catastrophe from occurring a month later.
More recently, in middle age, I’ve seen death strike two others down in a similarly premature fashion. Paul, a dear friend and the chief editor on the magazine for which Mark and I both worked, died four years ago, at age (I think) 46. The cause was mesothelioma – and how this man who had no known exposure to asbestos, who’d never smoked a cigarette in his life, came down with this dreadful form of lung cancer is still a mystery. He left behind his college sweetheart of a wife and two young children, and a raft of friends – like me – unprepared for the loss, though he’d been fighting the terminal disease for two years.
The second, random death I’ve seen recently was that of my dear friend Greg, two years ago, at the age of 52. His partner of 32 years came home from work one evening to find him dead of a massive heart attack on their living room sofa. Though heart disease ran in his family, Greg seemed the picture of health, carting his grilled chicken and mixed greens to work every day, choosing the egg beater omelets and Skinny Cow deserts. And, yet, there I was getting the tearful phone call, making flight arrangements, sitting in a church bursting with former students, co-teachers, friends and family.
And now, Mark. We weren’t terribly close, though we enjoyed each other’s company. We’d shared our respective hard-life tales of growing up, clinked any number of post-trade-show martini glasses and bitched about management shortcomings. But since I left, first, the magazine and then the company, we’d fallen out of touch. Yes, even 10 years ago, one might have looked at him and said, enough with the cigarettes, get yourself a treadmill, you’ve got to start taking care of yourself. But one could’ve said exactly the same thing about my father at that age (except for the cigarettes – he gave those up cold turkey at age 45). And, yet, my father, with his kidney, heart and circulatory disease, still makes it to poker twice a week, and will be flying to St. Louis for a small family gathering later this week.
So I guess this lesson of randomness and the possibility of unimaginable outcomes, which I started learning at the age of 8, is one we must become accustomed to repeating more frequently as the years accumulate. I’ve heard the complaints of my father, and my grandparents before him, that this is the hardest tax aging asks of us, as yet another among the troupe of acquaintances is marked off the holiday-card list. I now sometimes find myself running that same imagination exercise I forced myself through at 8, when Dad is out and the driveway is back down to a single car, wondering when I’ll be observing that lesson of randomness, once again.