We are at a point in life where death is not a reality. Why should it be?
As future upper-middle classers enjoying our college years, the world is an untapped oyster ripe with opportunity, success and glory. For now, we tell ourselves to soak up the sun. Relish a tax-free existence while it presents itself. Prepare studiously (when it’s convenient) for an 8-to-5 grind complete with the doubleplusgood promise brought to us by Hollywood and advertising gurus everywhere, the promise of an adulthood that will fulfill our childhood fantasies of a wonderful life. Death is far, far away from us.
My cousin Tanya’s relationship with this enticing deception was painfully short. She was 24 years old when a doctor diagnosed her with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. One can only imagine the devastating effect such news had. Why? Because she had a date that weekend with Chris, a longtime family friend who is three years her junior (a fact I seldom pass up a chance to kid her about.)
Two weeks earlier, Chris had been home for spring break. The two crossed paths at a local bar where, thanks to some good old-fashioned liquid courage, they preceded to “mug each other in front of the whole place,” as Tanya eloquently described. Apparently, Chris had had a crush on his older sister’s friend for quite a while, and Tanya, who claims obliviousness, was taken aback as sobriety returned the next day.
Chris had to return to Aggieland, and a frustrated Tanya waited for his call. In his foolish youth, Chris was afraid that their mutual state of inebriation during the encounter relegated it to a one-time fling. But he finally called after a week, asking her to see him when he drove down the following weekend.
During the time that passed between that phone call and her scheduled date, Tanya visited the doctor because of some strange, reoccurring symptoms she could not understand. It was then that she discovered the horrible truth of her disease.
San Antonio was a small town 20 years ago, and news like this traveled fast. When Chris arrived that weekend, his parents gave him the details.
“Chris,” they said, not realizing the two had a planned date (much less that they’d committed some righteous PDA) after 16 years of knowing each other. “Tanya has cancer.”
“Tanya May?” Chris replied, referring to his own cousin, another Tanya.
“No. Tanya Yamin.”
Another situation we will never be able to empathize with: A man’s longtime love, finally within his grasp, and here death was, trying to prematurely yank her away. I am not sure how I would have responded. How can you know unless you have to?
Chris did not miss a beat.
“But what about our date tonight?”
Tanya’s beautiful smile warms the room as she recounts this story, probably for the hundredth time. The two have been married for over 15 years and have four children. Jude, 10, a gamer, is often found plugged into some wild Minecraft creation, communicating with his fellow compatriots in a language I cannot understand. (Chris is an architect … it all makes sense now.) Rome, 7, is an athlete and future high school heartthrob. The 6-year-old Dante is a miniature mad genius. Most of the time, he defines the word “spaz.” But when he graces us with a moment of solemnity, I fear for the minds he is going to blow when maturity balances out his wild side. Lovely little Talia is the family’s lone daughter and a social butterfly. Created in the image of her mother, a real estate agent, she knows how to get what she wants in a way that makes you think you wanted to give it to her all along.
The kids are vaguely aware of their mother’s current condition. After winning her first round with the disease in her mid-20s, the cancer recurred in her breast in 2013, leading to a double mastectomy. Initially, she was cleared. In the summer of 2014, the cancer returned again, steadily spreading ever since.
This time around, the prognosis had little hope. After attempting intense chemo for a time, she chose to forgo the treatment; the pain it caused her and its lack of results left no reason to continue. As of this summer, the battle is between what remains of her depleted immune system and the most powerful version of the pathology her body has met. It’s difficult to know what the future holds for Tanya. Many in similar situations have led fairly typical lives; these are classic examples of the philosophy “Mind over matter” succeeding. Many other cases are not.
When death is perpetually at your doorstep, it lends perspective. When death is something that happens to grandparents, unlucky car crash victims, Middle Eastern collateral damage and names in a history book, it evokes convoluted, ephemeral feelings of despair, sympathy and “” most frighteningly “” indifference. Dwelling on death’s inevitability is not the recommendation.
As college students, we excel at ignoring the enormous smallness of our lives. We exercise precise and circuitous methods of collecting ourselves in the moment, distract our busy minds with trivial matters and rarely stop to consider the big questions, the things that matter. Deep down, we cling to the simplistic idea that if we are good, then the afterlife will be good, leaving the weighty issues of living and dying, right and wrong, and truth and falsehood to sort out themselves on their own time.
Flannery O’Connor wrote with tremendous insight into the human condition. When she was diagnosed with lupus at the age of 27, doctors told her she had a maximum of five years to go. She passed at 39. Over the course of those 12 years, she wrote dozens of short stories and two novels that were organized posthumously in a compilation that won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction. This woman’s brilliance radiates from the pages of her collected works, but it is a quote from one of her many lectures that I think pertains greatly to your life, my own and the point I am struggling to make in this column:
“If it is presumptuous to think that faith will stay with you forever, it is just as presumptuous to think that unbelief will.”
For Flannery and Tanya, death did not follow its modern protocol. As a result, their lives are richly enhanced in many important ways. Rather than seeing life through the lenses of optimism, greed and ego, they are forced to recognize it for what it really is “” fleeting, and physically and emotionally wrenching. The enhancement lies in death’s desire to show us the truth of this world. Chris summed this up to me plainly over beer and sushi not too long ago.
“There are no atheists in the foxhole.”
By no means does the foxhole have to inhibit this life’s many pleasures. It certainly has not inhibited Tanya and Chris, who hit the town regularly, share unconditional wisdom with me on a regular basis and exemplify the joys of a fast-paced family life when they and their four kids pile on their double couch in front of the TV on a Friday night, without any sense of restlessness or worry.