Photo by orin zebest on Flickr

Lessons on Life from Death

In the last six months, two people close to me died under seemingly improbable circumstances. They were literally close, in proximity; I actually didn’t know them very well. The first was the adult son of my neighbor across the street. The second was a nearly-retired gentleman who lived about five blocks from my house.

Like I said, I hardly knew them, so I can’t reflect on their lives or character, or say anything nice about them from personal experience. But the circumstances of their deaths were so extraordinary, and they occurred in such close proximity, and they happened within such a short time of one another, that I feel like someone should acknowledge the coincidence.

The neighbor’s son died when a large pole fell and hit him in the head. The pole was about twelve feet tall and five inches in diameter. It was a solid, serious piece of metal that must have weighed several hundred pounds; it crushed his head and he died several hours later in the hospital.

My neighbor, who’s in his 70s, had asked his middle-aged son to help with a project in the driveway. Some of the details are hazy (I didn’t have the heart to ask my neighbor for the whole story), but their work involved the massive pole and a steel cable attached to a the back of a truck. The men worked while their wives chatted nearby, until the cable unexpectedly snapped and resulted in the pole’s deadly fall. In fact, the pole didn’t fall towards the men—it fell in the direction of the women. In his final act, the son pushed his wife aside and took the blow in her place. I can’t help admiring that the ultimate decision of his life was a sincere demonstration of love for the person I presume he loved the most.

Just five blocks away and five months later, the other gentleman, in his 60s, also died unexpectedly. His son, who spoke to reporters after his father’s death, explained that dad regularly repaired bicycles. On the morning of his death, he was test-riding a recent fixup on the street by his home.

The details of this story are also hazy, but, in addition to the bike, an SUV and a train were involved. As the older man rode in the street near the railroad crossing, he was struck by the SUV. He landed on the tracks just seconds before the train arrived. He, of course, died on impact with the train. The unfortunate, yet guilty driver of the SUV was charged for reckless manslaughter. Her entire windshield had been covered in early morning frost and she took just enough time to clear a small, six-inch hole to squint through while she drove.

One man died saving his wife, as a gigantic pole landed squarely on his head. The other, riding his bike, was hit by a car, then killed by a train. Who would imagine that with cancer, heart attacks, old age, and so many of the other more common faces of death, these two men would die as a result of such bizarre, precisely-timed sequences of events?

Since I didn’t know these men, there isn’t much more to say, except for the impressions I’ve had about death since these accidents occurred. The first is that death comes quickly. Most people don’t live to the age where they’re ready for death; it pulls life out from under them even when they think they’re firmly planted. I’m a fan, like most people, of drifting off peacefully while I sleep, but death doesn’t honor preferences.

The second impression is that, despite the billions of deaths that we, humankind, have witnessed, we still know nothing about it. And that’s because we’re still living. Two men died unexpectedly, so I’m sympathetic to the pain and sadness of their friends and families, but reflection on their deaths has inevitably produce an appreciation for my own life. Every death is a reminder of the value of life; the way to prepare for death is by enjoying life.