“Pity not the dead. For the dead, being dead, feel no more fear, pain, or unhappiness. Pity those who are left behind.”
Growing up in Canada during the 60s and 70s was a peaceful experience for me and most of my friends. The murmurs of war in faraway lands on the evening news went largely unnoticed by most kids. Canada wasn’t involved in the Vietnam War so it wasn’t our brothers and sisters returning home in coffins. My first encounter with death was the loss of a beloved uncle when I was 9, and I wasn’t allowed to go to the funeral. 10 years later, the sudden death of his sister, my aunt and next door neighbour, affected me to a considerably greater degree. I think I was about 18. Then suddenly, In my 20s, there was one death or tragedy after another and this time they were friends.
Lost Lives and a Broken Heart
Those were people who died, died…
They were all my friends, and they died.
The Jim Carroll Band
Car and workplace accidents, suicides, a death during surgery, and a disappearance that was never solved. One friend lost his mind. Another was struck by a car and crippled for life. Fate seemed to have targeted my group of friends during the 80’s but I’m sure we were just caught like flies in the inevitable statistical web of actuarial tables. I wrote at the time, “If this were a time of war then one would not be dismayed by the loss of so many at such a young age – but this is not a time of war.” I suppose it could’ve been worse, no one I knew died of AIDS during that time. Nevertheless, after one of my best friends fell to his death from a 10-story chimney in 1988, I crawled inside a cocoon of substance abuse from which I didn’t emerge until I moved to Turkey in 1994.
The Sands of Time
The crypts of Santa Maria della Concezione in Rome are a virtual monument to mortality that forces us to reflect upon the brevity of life. Indeed, a recurring motif of the grisly bone sculptures is time, with bone hour glasses reminding us to make the best of the brief period we’ve been allotted in this world. I visited there as a young traveler when I was 24, taking a morbid delight in the sculptures and actual mummies of the Capuchin friars. As a middle-aged man visiting there again a few years ago, it had a more sobering effect upon me.
I lost one of my brothers over 10 years ago and was unable to grieve properly due to the antidepressants I was taking in response to a different life crisis I was going through at the time. The death of my brother-in-law a few years later shook me more deeply, especially on account of how young he was when he passed away. Just last week a good friend died too young. She was only 61, a month younger than me and it really hit me hard. Fun and funny, kind and tolerant, she was a fellow teacher much beloved by her students, who left behind an adoring husband. It seems that as I get older, each death affects me more greatly. The tears come more easily, my empathy for the bereaved is keener. As my own life approaches its final curtain, I appear to be gaining a better appreciation for the preciousness of life and the finality of death. As the common paraphrase of John Donne’s poem goes, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”