Benjamin Franklin once said, “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” I think most of us would have to agree with Ben’s sentiment (non-withstanding the absurd amount of time I procrastinated scrounging up my W-2 forms last month). According to several very credible websites that I totally spent more than five minutes Googling, the world mortality rate typically rests at just under 1% of the total human population. That doesn’t seem like a lot at first, but think about it — that is almost one person for every one hundred people. One hundred people were waiting in line to see a famous speaker last week in my town; one hundred people signed a petition in the office that I work at; one hundred people applied to that damned internship that I was not offered one summer. Of those one hundred people, one unfortunate soul should statistically. That doesn’t actually happen, but that’s not the point.
People die. It’s a fact. Death is inevitable (as inevitable as taxes, even), yet it is still something that we all fear. Like a stone teetering on the edge of a precarious cliff, death is a silent dread that delicately rests in the back of our minds until the day comes when we are forced to confront it in some capacity. Death directly affects around 150,000 people every single day, but we ignore it as much as possible until we can’t anymore. (P.S. Feel free to correct me on these statistics.)
Someone that went to my school died recently – I’ll call him Tyler. I did not know Tyler at all; I had never so much as even seen him in passing on campus. At a state university with a monstrous undergraduate population that accounts for most of the city’s population itself, it is pretty easy to live here for four years without meeting most of the fellow co-eds. Tyler died of bacterial meningitis. From what I know, Tyler went to the emergency room one night with a burning fever and was later sent home. Two days later, feeling worse, he returned to the hospital. He slipped into a coma quickly. Three days later, Tyler passed away. His death happened very fast and unexpectedly for a seemingly average and healthy college student.
I found about Tyler’s passing the following weekend while reading a campus newspaper. And ever since then, I have caught myself typing his name (somewhat shamefully, I guess) into my Facebook search bar multiple times and poring over the emotional wall posts on his profile written by acquaintances and longtime friends alike. Through his profile and news articles published in the following week, I learned that while Tyler and I never knew each other, we had a lot more in common than I realized. For starters, we were the same age, which means a lot when you’re 21 years old. We grew up in neighboring towns. We liked the same local music scene. We even had a couple of mutual friends; friends that knew him infinitely better than I ever would. Small similarities like this often bring people together, and they often do not. My path never crossed with Tyler’s path in the span of his short life, but I had no reason to think that it never would.
Who am I to say that Tyler and I never would have met? What if we had a class together sometime? What if we sat next to each other during a lecture and he asked if I wanted to study for the midterm together? What if we got burgers with our friends, went to parties together, and recounted the tales in class the next Monday? What if we formed a friendship where we always stayed in touch even as our lives moved further and further apart? What if we traveled to faraway places and shared deep secrets on long car rides? What if we just ended up resenting each other? What if, even, we fell in love?
I think that is our primary concern with death, especially when it is unforeseen (assuming that death can be foreseen to any extent). It’s all about the big mystery that follows. It is a question and an answer at the same time. It is a question of “What if they had not died?” and a very unsatisfying answer of “Well, you’ll never know now”. Ultimately, it is a question that will never really be answered because that person is gone for good. This would be a time when I envy people who have a powerful and unabating faith in an afterlife. I want to believe that I will see my loved ones again after my earthly self reaches its expiration date, but I have never been able to fully convince myself of this conviction.
I think this is why Tyler has preoccupied my thoughts lately and why his sudden passing is affecting me in ways that I did not anticipate. He represents the Big Unanswerable Question. We all can recount at least one person that came into our lives in an utterly random manner and influenced us in ways that we never would have dreamed possible. When someone passes away, the book is forever closed on what could have been. I feel a weird sense of regret that I never met Tyler, combined with a peculiar and surprisingly deep sadness that I only knew of him once he left the earth that we lived on together.
Perhaps this seems like a selfish outlook on Tyler’s death, but I am not sad only because of the impact that he never got to have on my life. I am sad that he never got to meet my friends, or my friends’ friends, or someone on the other side of the country or on the other side of the world. I am sad that Tyler won’t be able to have those random and wonderful encounters that could have woven the fabric of his life, and maybe mine if chance had it. We’ll never know.
I want to not be so fearful of death simply because it is unknown in more than one aspect. I want to be able to go out in this world and accept that no one is immortal. I want to understand that people die for reasons that do not make sense – whether it is a critical failure of the human body or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Truly, I’m not sure if that is possible. Life just gets in the way, you know?