Whenever I prepare for a journey I prepare as though for death. Should I never return, all is in order. —Katherine Mansfield
I was just finishing my final fashion review for the day, yesterday, when word came that country singer Joey Fleek had passed. No one was surprised, of course. Mrs. Fleek’s battle with cervical cancer was well documented. She had returned to her childhood home here in Indiana and left quietly, surrounded by her family. I’m sure there will be no shortage of tributes and memorials forthcoming.
When I woke up this morning, two more names had been added to the list. Novelist Pat Conroy, author of books such as The Prince of Tides, died of pancreatic cancer at age 70. I found it interesting that, according to his obituary on NPR, he wrote as a way of attempting to find out who he really was, and did not feel as though he had succeeded, or, at least, had not yet finished.
Bud Collins, the tennis writer, and commentator died yesterday as well. Bud was known not only for his extremely deep knowledge of the history of tennis, but the very bright and colorful pants he wore, which really stood out in a sport where anything other than white might be considered out of bounds. His was the voice I most associate with the U.S. Open and it will be there that he is most missed.
We are only at the beginning of March, we’ve not yet made it to those dreadful Ides, and already death of notable persons is a leading topic for the year. I’m beginning to wonder if this might be the year in which everyone important dies, which would be a rather unflattering assessment of anyone left. I never consider it a good omen when someone’s death is a trending topic, and especially not when three of the top ten social media trends are about people dying.
Our society has a strange fascination with death; to some degree we always have. What’s interesting, though, is that our interest in the topic has grown more as the very act of dying has become less common. Prior to the discovery of penicillin, death was just an everyday sort of thing. If one so much as received a simple cut on the arm, one could die. Got the flu? Hello, death. Eat some bad barbecue? Death would be right there waiting. If incidents of death by cancer and heart disease seemed less frequent, it was due in no small part to the fact a lot of people didn’t live long enough for those fatal diseases to develop. Whooping cough was a more frequent cause of death than either cancer or heart attack.
Oh, that reminds me, the baby who made headlines when his mom dressed him like Senator Bernie Sanders last month? Word of his death made its way into the press yesterday, as well. The little guy, not yet four months old, died of SIDS a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately, the child’s mother comes off as a bit unscrupulous as she begs for money to cover funeral costs and counseling.
What bothers me most, perhaps, is that this preponderance of death does not seem to be doing its usual job of forcing us to examine our own lives. Under normal conditions, one might look at all these deaths and think, “maybe I need to be eating better,” or “perhaps I should be more careful when I’m driving.” Death should have a way of reminding us of our own mortality and encourage us to lead better lives. For some reason, though, that isn’t happening.
Here’s a question for you to ask yourself: Is my life notable enough for anyone outside my family to mourn my death? We notice the deaths of people like Joey Fleek, Pat Conroy, and Bud Collins because of what they did while they were alive. None of them had spectacular deaths. All passed quietly in their beds surrounded by their families. If their exit from this world is worth mentioning it is because their presence in this world had some lasting impact. Without anything exceptional in their lives, all they would receive would be the standard four-inch, single column obituary in the local paper. Their lives are what give us reason to notice their deaths.
So, what of you and me? What are we doing to make our lives exceptional so that, when our time comes, people notice our demise as well? What contributions are we making to this planet that are worth remembering? Will they say we gave generously of our time to help others, or is our only claim to fame the number of flaming comments we left under online news articles? Are we living lives of creativity and invention that are worth remembering or are we too busy bickering over someone’s sexual practices to do anything genuinely productive?
We who are not yet dead have myriad choices regarding the lives we lead. We can be exceptional, each of us in unique ways that separate us from everyone else. So, why aren’t we? Are we afraid? Or are we just lazy?
The year is too young to think that we won’t visit this topic again soon. Hopefully, it will not be you we are discussing, but if it should be, I hope we have something more to say than, “He/she was on Facebook a lot.” Live so the world has reason to notice your death.