I have always been a rather careful person when it comes to my physical safety. I suspect deep down some part of my psyche believes that if I just keep my nose clean and play my cards well, any freak mishaps, violent incidents or sudden illnesses that must happen will happen to people who are less careful than I. My shiny track record of no broken bones and no serious illnesses seems to suggest that it’s true, but I know it’s mostly luck.
It’s no fun to think about it, but fatalities without warning do happen, and not even the most asinine of worrywarts can “careful” their way around that possibility. There is an inescapable caveat attached to the gift of life: that it is only borrowed, and we never know when we have to give it back. Lightning strikes, it really does.
We live in a culture that wants us to believe we can circumvent any real possibility of an unfair and untimely demise if we just focus on security and minimize risk. Human beings have real trouble coming to terms with their temporary nature, because among the animals we have the unfortunate distinction of being the only one intelligent enough to be aware throughout our lives that we will die.
Particularly when we read about a fatality in the news, the frightening unforeseeability of death very often gets masked by blame. In most of these stories, the question of blame pops up like clockwork, as if an untimely death can only be the result of a preventable, punishable human error. It couldn’t happen just because — there’s always something that was overlooked, some warning that was ignored or unnecessary risk that was taken.
They should have put a handrail there.
The doctors downplayed his concerns.
She must have gotten mixed up with the wrong crowd.
Excessive speed may have been a factor.
Anyone can identify where things “went wrong” when they look at an event after the fact. “This death was preventable,” how many times have you heard that meaningless sentence? All we need to know how to prevent a fatality is hindsight, which means it must have happened already.
Particularly in the USA, there is a cultural belief that with enough cunning and power and money, a society can stitch up virtually every risk of catastrophe. We’ve all witnessed the dramatic surge in airport security since the 9/11 attacks. It’s made our flights longer, more expensive and more bureaucratic, all to prevent something that has already happened. I still hear people say, “Well as long as it keeps us safe from terrorists, it’s worth the extra time and money.”
But it doesn’t. When it comes to people intent on doing harm, they seek the cracks and loopholes, which aren’t even countable, let alone fillable. Making one route only makes the others more attractive. Every airport in the world could be utterly impenetrable, and it wouldn’t matter, because anyone intent on killing indiscriminately will strike wherever it’s easier: a school, a festival, a sports venue — or even another skyscraper; they just won’t use planes this time. It hurts to admit it, but no matter what we do, we are always at risk of an unfair, unexpected death. Yet billions continue to flow into the unachievable human dream of death-proofing life.
A few summers ago, there was a horrific incident aboard a Greyhound bus en route to my hometown. Without warning, one passenger produced a hunting knife and began stabbing the young man beside him. The bus driver pulled over in a hurry, and all but those two passengers fled the bus. Barricaded inside, the perpetrator eventually walked up to the front door, carrying the young man’s severed head.
The case made international news. Before young Tim McLean had even been laid to rest, there was a lobby calling for the outfitting of bus drivers with sidearms so that such a thing could not happen again.
Presumably, at the first hint of an impending stabbing, a well-trained bus-driver could leap out into the aisle and pick off the attacker, with John Woo-style theatrics. And just like that, no more grisly stabbings on buses.
Greyhound was immediately blasted for not having metal detectors and airport-caliber security, though nobody had mentioned the lack of security before the incident. They bent under the public pressure. Security increased, along with the ticket prices, ridership decreased, and now Greyhound continues to close routes in Canada in an effort to stay profitable.
Life is high-risk
In the weeks following the Greyhound murder, Facebook groups appeared, soliciting people to attend candlelight vigils for the victim. A friend of mine expressed a bit of a rant about it in his status message. I’m paraphrasing, but he said something like, “Why are all of these thousands of people mourning the death of this person they’ve never met? Was it because he died in spectacular fashion? People die violently every day, but I suppose their deaths aren’t quite cool enough to make them popular.”
My initial thought was “Yes, probably,” but as his remark continued to rattle around in my head, I realized there was something much more upsetting about this case than its gruesome imagery.
What was so shocking about the incident was how completely random it was. There was no predicting it, no preventing it, no understanding it. A young man’s life ended in the most unspeakable manner, and nothing could have been done about it. He could have been the most careful person in the world. It didn’t matter if throughout his entire life he had stayed away from unsavory crowds, never touched alcohol, never spent too much time in the sun, never ate trans fats, always held the handrail, always wore his seat belt, always obeyed the speed limit, never meddled in skydiving, drugs, casual sex, red meat, third-world travel, black diamond skiing, golfing in the rain or crossing from between parked cars.
He assumed no identifiable risks by taking the bus from one sleepy Canadian city to another, yet the result was a brutal, reasonless death. The reality that is so unpalatable to the public is that death is very often senseless, yet we try to wring some sense out of it by citing a security flaw, or more easily, identifying an individual who is solely, cleanly responsible for the senselessness of it. With that individual locked away, death becomes once again sensible and preventable, and we can all breathe as easily as we did before we saw the awful headline that day. In court, killer Vince Li was demonstrated to be utterly, violently insane. He had no criminal past, and he beheaded and began to cannibalize his victim because he thought the boy was a demon sent to destroy him.
People were extremely upset when he was determined to be insane. They seemed to ache for a good reason as to why this boy was killed — a lucid, calculating killer instead of a crackpot — perhaps because then they could ask “Why?” and at least get a coherent answer.
For a lot of people, I suspect this murder dealt massive blow to the illusion that untimely death happens only when predictable, controllable factors are overlooked.
If something should happen…
Most of my life I pictured myself dying gracefully in a hospital ward — or better yet, in a warm, quilted bed at my beautiful country home, like Forrest Gump’s mom — with every opportunity I needed to say whatever I needed to say before I winked out for good. I could tell everyone that I loved them, that I’m at peace with death — whatever it would take to help us all come to terms with the prospect of old Grandpa David moving on to greener pastures.
Of course, this scenario is certainly not guaranteed. I often think about the people whose sudden deaths make the news, and what their last interactions with their loved ones were like. The 9/11 attacks alone would have produced over three thousand such haphazard, unsentimental final goodbyes. For most of them this last parting moment would have been completely pedestrian: “Why can’t they make a decent shoelace these days?” or “Don’t forget to pick up Nutella on the way home, we’re almost out.” Some of them probably had a quarrel. Likely none of them said, “If I don’t see you again, I love you and regret nothing.”
No, we really can’t be sure we’ll have a chance to wrap up those loose ends. Making sure your will is in place is certainly one considerate thing to do for your family [actually I better get on that one - D] but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about telling people who matter the things you want them to know. Once lightning strikes, there’s no more time to ponder it, so best do it now.
What do you want your people to be aware of, while you still have a chance to tell them?
I won’t even suggest what those things might be for you personally, but it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out. But in a moment I’ll tell you what I know I need to say, for what it’s worth. It’s pretty simple, and might as well be public.
I have long fantasized about writing a lengthy discourse, called “Why it’s okay that I died,” or something along those lines, and leave it in a conspicuous place in my closet. Its purpose would be to inform my surviving friends and family members that, in the case of an untimely death, I am cool with it. Doesn’t really matter how it happens: lightning, bowling ball accident, rhino attack, car wreck (boring!), rapid flesh-eating disease, javelin mishap at the 2036 Summer Games in Singapore, it’s all the same — I’m fine with the outcome, because it’s utterly inevitable no matter what the timing or form.
It has been rather nervewracking to put off this particular task. Not that I plan on taking any unnecessary risks, but sometimes the urgency of it does bubble up inside me. For instance, the thought came up back in mid-November when I found myself hurtling down an uneven country road in Thailand in a home-made Tuk-Tuk (really just a motorcycle with a covered bench welded to its side) with nothing resembling a seatbelt, commandeered by a shrewd driver who was ripping me off even though he insisted I was ripping him off. He was adept at dodging the plentiful potholes, even at that speed, but one bad one probably would have done it… Of course, nothing happened, and I put off my little “Just in case” discourse again. Two months later, I’m happy to say I’m actually doing it.
Now I’m in the much saner, more regulated country of New Zealand, where I feel the likelihood of being catapulted from a makeshift Tuk-Tuk is drastically reduced. But this island nation is prone to earthquakes, volcanoes and the occasional colossal squid.
I like life, and I plan to keep at it for a while, but death itself doesn’t scare me. I just don’t like the thought of a lot of people being distraught should things end abruptly. In case anyone, whether you’re a casual reader, a friend or a family member, finds themselves needing to make sense out of the senseless, here’s what I feel I need to say. It’s in past tense, for obvious reasons, but at the time of writing I’m still kicking.
Whatever happened, I’m proud of it all, right up to and including the end. Whether, as I write this, I’m due for a quick lightning strike, or fifty years of terrible decisionmaking and failed goals are yet to come, what I’ve experienced so far makes it all worthwhile.
No matter how unfair or unexpected or early or needless my death was, it is not a tragedy.
I don’t care if someone took my life for no reason. It doesn’t matter to me if I was victimized or martyred or sacrificed or betrayed. I don’t care if I did something dumb and out-of-character and did myself in. Ill-advised cliff-dive, maybe. Let it be, it was my right. Please, do not interpret my life’s conclusion as a tragedy and do not regard my life as incomplete.
It was perfect. I got to make hundreds of friends and eat fish and chips out of a newspaper and beat my dad at chess. I got to experience the highest highs and the lowest lows. I got to drink beer on the patio with some of the planet’s finest human beings. I got to laugh, often. I got to write things, and got you to read them. My life wasn’t “tragically cut short” unless you have some very serious entitlement issues. Nothing went wrong. Learn what you can from it and carry on knowing I was cool with all of it, and that no lightning bolt or falling piano can change that.
Ah. Huge weight off my chest.
So, is there anything you need your people to know, before you’re unable to tell them? Give it a bit of thought, but don’t put it off. Especially if there’s a thunderstorm outside.