It’s a subject we write about all the time. Especially fiction. Good fiction always has to have something valuable at stake – and what’s more valuable than life itself? But what do we really know about death, other than eventually it takes us all?
The thing about death is the older we grow the nearer we get to it. Also, the older we get, the more familiar it becomes, as we experience it through the deaths of friends and family as well as public figures and acquaintances.
We, the living, all look for meaning when somebody dies. Some look for cosmic meaning – where will the deceased end up, is there an afterlife and what does it all mean. But I think most of us look at the story a given lifetime tells, and like any story, we want to learn from it. Was the life worth living, was it lived well? Did it touch other lives? How was the world changed by its existence? What obstacles was he able to overcome? Unable to?
Stories are so important to human beings because when you come right down to it they all deal with our awareness of our own mortality. Stories, like a life, have a beginning, middle and end. If we weren’t aware of the inevitability of our own death, stories wouldn’t be so important. People live on in stories after their death – Grandpa used to get up at 4:30 every morning to start the milking, he sure was a hard worker is another way of saying grandpa’s life wasn’t meaningless, and as long as we remember him, he lives on, at least in our memories, like the drawings of hunts on cave walls still tell the stories of our prehistoric ancestors.
So recently, after experiencing chest pains and having emergency heart bypass surgery, the nearest to my own death I’ve been so far, what was the first thing I did when I started recovery? I started working on stories, figuring out what I’d tell people about my experiences, about the anxiety I felt, about the pain, the doctors, the nurses, the pain pills and the hallucinations I experienced under their control, everything. This is a big deal, I told myself, I could have died. Everybody will want to hear about this.
But now, almost two months later, the experience is already in my rear view mirror and fading. I’ve made changes to my diet and lifestyle that will be permanent, but otherwise, my life has returned to a normalcy and comfort that doesn’t feel much different than before. And it’s happened much quicker than I thought it would.
Last Friday, a member of the writers group I belong to, a woman named Marguerite McClelland, passed away. I didn’t know her all that well, just what she’d shared with us in her writing. She was seventy one years old, having been born in the Alsace region on the France-Germany border in 1943, at the epicenter and the height of World War Two. She never knew her father, who was a casualty of the war.
I know these things about her because of memoirs and poems she’d written and shared. Stories of her life. Stories that will live on now even though she won’t. Marguerite’s stories will live longer than most because they are so well written, the language is so evocative and beautiful.
It’s estimated that each hour, 6,390 people die. That’s 153,000 per day, and 56 million per year. It’s estimated that 107 billion people have lived in the history of the earth, and that 100 billion of them have already died. Think of the people you’ve know who have died. Maybe there’s fifty people, one hundred if you count famous dead celebrities you’re familiar with. That leaves 99,999,999,900 dead people who you know nothing about.
But each of those 100 billion lives that have begun and ended had their own unique stories and left their own indelible mark on the world. Every life, no matter how short or seemingly inconsequential, impacts other lives, in ways known and unknown.
And when a beautiful soul like Marguerite passes, we who were lucky enough to have known her even for a short time are stronger for the story she told.