A few weeks ago I plopped down in my computer chair and opened up my email. A friend from college had sent a message on Facebook, so I opened it, thinking it was about our plans to rendezvous in Colorado this summer. But what Max wrote wasn’t what I expected. He told me a mutual friend of ours had died suddenly at age 55.
The friend who died wasn’t just any friend. Mark was an old beau, and our relationship had been a close one. After many years of being out of touch, we’d recently reconnected and become email and Facebook buddies. I found out Mark and his wife lived in California, so when Peter and I decided to go to Santa Barbara last summer, we made plans to meet.
I hadn’t seen Mark in 30 years, and when we sat in his garden drinking margaritas and talking about old times, I was transported back to another era of my life when I was young and carefree. My relationship with Mark had been semi-serious back then, but we grew apart and lost touch over the years. I heard about him periodically from mutual friends and wondered what his life was like and who he’d become. When we finally connected, it meant a lot to me.
Mark was dealing with some health issues, but he didn’t seem overly concerned about them. He and his wife were heading to Greece this spring, and a reunion in Colorado this summer was in the works.
After I returned home, Mark emailed me that his health issues were becoming more serious. After taking numerous tests, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and prescribed a cocktail of meds that turned his life upside down. I worried about him and tried to cheer him up by sending links to Grateful Dead songs and writing about plans for our reunion this summer.
Then the email came with the news of his sudden death. To say I was shocked would be an understatement—not only because I lost a dear friend but also because Mark is the first peer that I felt close to who has died. I still have email messages from him in my Friends folder and lingering memories of the summer evening we spent in his Santa Barbara garden.
Death is a part of life, people say, but it’s a hard one for most of us to accept. We ponder what death means and why people die. Some view death as a transition to a better place, part of a plan. Others can’t seem to accept that people die and feel cheated somehow that their loved ones are no longer here on earth. I’m not sure what to think about it. Trying to understand and accept my daughter’s death 21 years ago has occupied a lot of my time and energy over the years, and while I am slowly coming to a place of acceptance, I still want to shake my fist at someone, somewhere and say, “Why did you do this to me?”
I think all of us have our trials in life, moments when life seems unfair. Moving beyond those moments, picking yourself up and carrying on, takes faith and fortitude. There’s no easy answer.
Sometimes we cross paths with people whose view of death is much more positive. They can somehow let go of those who’ve left this earth with a profound sense of knowing, a sense that where that person has gone is where he or she is supposed to be, leaving us behind to pick up the pieces, to try to integrate that person’s life into our own and perhaps create meaning in the process.
For isn’t that what life is about: creating meaning, learning from the things that happen to us, becoming better people, more aware of our purpose in life? I think it’s true that life’s challenges make us grow stronger and that part of our mission is to discover why certain things happen to us and how we can grow and learn from them.
Mark won’t be at the reunion in Colorado this summer, but I’ll gather there with friends, and we’ll remember him and his gentle soul. We’ll share some stories and talk about how he made our lives richer. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll come a little closer to understanding what he was here to teach us.
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P.P.S. Tell your friends in Richmond to come to my book signing at Chop Suey Books, 2913 W. Cary St. on Feb. 27 at 3 p.m. Ph. 804-422-8066. Thanks!