A former student of mine died last week.
I realize that declaration is utterly lacking in finesse. So was Brandy’s death. On Monday morning, she was alive, and by Monday afternoon she wasn’t. No lead-up, no warning.
The default response of almost everyone close to her has been But I just talked to her…
Like the execution of Ned Stark, the first time this happens, we are utterly unprepared, and the feelings that arise are equally unpredictable.
When I was 17, a classmate died in a farming accident. We learned about it on Saturday night during a basketball game. Friday he was at school. Saturday afternoon he was dead. I had harbored a bit of a crush on him and was shocked and saddened by his passing. For weeks, I would forget that he was gone and turn toward his locker to tell him something during passing period. I’d quickly realize my mistake and look around to make sure no one had seen me. I have no better word to describe what I felt in those moments than jealousy. In dying, he had attained an understanding of something that I could not comprehend, and I wanted to know what he knew. I just didn’t want to die to get it.
At 38, Brandy was among the oldest of my former students. She was smart, acerbic, prone to sarcasm, reliable, funny. She was one of the many kids who found a place to belong in the school’s theater department. As costume crew chief, she was my right hand for at least a half dozen shows. In fact, she showed me the ropes when I was first hired. She introduced me to my first Dairy Queen Blizzard. She also introduced me to her older sister, who is my best friend. If for no other reason, I am eternally in her debt for this.
Although I never discussed this with her explicitly, I don’t imagine that high school was particularly comfortable place for Brandy. She did not possess the currency that is valued in high school. She was not bubbly or athletic or cute and cuddly.
And that’s what makes her death all the more heart breaking. From my limited perspective, it seems that it is only recently that she began to embrace all the possibilities open to her. She had started a new job that was both emotionally fulfilling and potentially lucrative. She began distance running and taking cool vacations. There was so much she seemed poised to attempt.
I don’t know how the rumor got started that high school is the best time of your life, but it’s time we put it to bed. There’s a reason they refer to graduation as Commencement. When high school ends, that’s when the good stuff begins:
The hair colors.
There’s an S on the end of each item on that list. Do you honestly expect to want forever what you wanted when you were 18?
Some years ago, I attended a funeral for a 21-year old who was killed in a motorcycle accident. The priest was given the unenviable task of imbuing this tragedy with some meaning that might comfort this young man’s family. The refrain he kept returning to was how wonderful it would be to remain 21 forever.
The sermon came from the same well-meaning place as the fatuous remarks with which you are inundated whenever an inexplicable tragedy strikes.
“She’s with God now.”
“You know, you can still talk to her, right?”
“It’s all part of God’s plan for you.”
I reject all of these.
I have another former student, Linda, also in her thirties, who has metastatic cancer. It is in her brain. It is in her spine. She has a three-year old son who has never known his mother when she was not sick.
You cannot make me believe that God needs this woman more than her son does.
I don’t think we are supposed to find comfort or meaning in a young woman’s death. In fact, such events should make us profoundly uncomfortable. The only useful purpose they serve is to shock us out of our complacency, to remind us that life is fragile and temporary, that today is a gift, and tomorrow is far from guaranteed.
Since being diagnosed, Linda has completed her PhD in musicology, become a much sought-after author of concert program notes, begun a popular and highly respected blog debunking myths about classical music, and continues to be a wife and mother. Occasionally, she’ll post on Facebook that the chemo slowed her down that day and, consequently, she was only able to finish two of the four writing projects she wanted to get to.
Let’s stop looking for meaning in death. Rather, let us allow the constant threat of it inspire us to lead full and intentional lives.