Faced with the fragility of life

Image: Eva Antonini — Ipseand

I’m waiting for the third thing to happen, though I sincerely hope it doesn’t. I’m not superstitious but I have to admit, it’s hard not to get rattled by life’s big tragedies. Back on Tuesday, March 14th, NYC’s spring snow day, one of my 15-year-old son’s best friends was found dead in his apartment. No one knows exactly what happened, but he seems to have been alone and foul play is not suspected. My son is a real silent kind and didn’t even say much until a few days later. On Thursday, March 16th, as half the world came to know, a veteran NYC EMT was killed when the ambulance she was driving was hijacked by a mentally disturbed and impaired man who ran her over and dragged her body to an intersection. She was the mother of five children, one of whom is a student in my 11th-grade high-school English class in the Bronx.

It was a week that hit you like a gut-punch. All the things everybody says are true, about how life can change in the blink of an eye and about how who dies never has to make any sense. You can never answer the questions, why him, why her, why now? He was just a boy; she had five kids. Nothing exempts anybody from the vagaries of death. If only there hadn’t been a snow day … if only she hadn’t worked overtime. Why can’t we ever go back and change those decisive moments? But we don’t get to choose.

We’re taught to organize and control everything; we plan endlessly. We put so much pressure on ourselves to do and be what’s expected of us. And we should but we should also realize it can all get shut down in a moment.

On Sunday, March 19th, my younger sister flew out from Minneapolis to test as my live donor at Mt. Sinai Transplant Center. I require a kidney transplant and my sister went through three days of often unpleasant tests. When she told me on Wednesday she had to redo her cardio test because of an issue I briefly went berserk. I’m counting on her being accepted and I don’t have any other immediate options. (My older sister was rejected last fall.) All I really did was yell at a bunch of kids at my school but I forgot to inquire about or express concern for my sister.

We worked it all out later that evening at a dinner at my niece’s in Brooklyn. On Thursday my son attended a memorial for his friend at his school. I and several of my colleagues went to the wake for my student’s mom. There was an enormous number of people there, cops and firefighters and EMT’s from all over the region. The street was blocked off and a line snaked all the way down the block. So many people had come to pay their respects.

Death and sorrow hung over the week, reminding us of the fragility of life. My own need for a kidney transplant reminds me that no one is immune. My sister found out on Friday that she passed all the other tests at Mt. Sinai. She’ll retake her cardio in Minneapolis this week. And I’m hoping with all my heart that it turns out okay.

So I want to know myself if any of this has made me less rash, more patient, further reflective … and I don’t know if that’s the case. The death of my son’s friend shook us both and it was a soft weekend when the routine of school and work finally allowed us to stop. There was cotton covering everything and the sounds were muted. We went to walk in Central Park and I bought him a shake from Shake Shack on the way to the train.

I feel confident that I’m going to be there for my son until he’s well past grown. And I feel endless sorrow for the mother of my son’s friend who lost her only child. Life is so unfair and I’m not going to say live life to the fullest or be thankful for what you have or anything like that. But I guess I am just going to say we’re hanging on by a thread; the word ephemeral is determinative. And if you keep that in mind you can at the very least be aware that you’re alive.