Sic Transit

  Jerome Shea       March 31, 2010      Weekend Wonk

A friend died last week.

But because there are so many ways to leave this life, let me be more specific. Hector Torres, my friend and colleague in the UNM English Department, was murdered. This happened because his girlfriend, Stephania Gray, had an ex-boyfriend who shot them both dead. I don’t feel constrained by the legal nicety of referring to him as the “alleged” killer, because he turned himself in the next day. Had things gone differently—the police, the courts, and other involved agencies are, too late, blaming each other—this horrible thing might not have happened. Now, too late, we are seeking justice. But that’s a wonk for another day. Right now I haven’t the stomach for it.

No one gets out of this world alive runs the platitude. But when I got home from Hector’s funeral last Saturday, I emailed a couple of old friends. I don’t know if I wanted to relieve some of the emotional pressure of the morning or perhaps—and I don’t think this perverse—keep the morning/mourning alive. I certainly was in a mood to reflect upon death and loss and last things. Judy emailed back, allowed as how she had never attended the funeral of someone who had been murdered and surely that must have added a powerful extra ration of sadness and outrage for the mourners. The saddest funeral she had ever attended was that of a child who died of a brain tumor, and after much suffering. That’s sad, too, of course; the death of the young and innocent always has a special poignancy. One can imagine the parents, hollow-eyed and drained. But “much suffering” struck a chord with both of us. When someone suffers a long and painful and irreversible illness, something in us wants to shout, “Free at last, free at last!” and rejoice in that person’s deliverance. We even have a phrase for this: to be out of one’s misery.

My mother’s death was like that. For two years she suffered more pain than I can imagine. In an awful irony, her pain helped us through her death. Everyone at the funeral was quick to say that she at least suffered no more, and that was true. We all grabbed hold of that. Had she died in some senseless traffic accident, or from a sudden heart attack, toggled in an instant from vibrant life to death, that would have added another layer of bewildered rage. Nonetheless, my father was never the same again. The dead do leave us, after all, and at some unconscious level it is hard for us to forgive them that.

I guess what I am struggling with here is the old concept of the “good death.” Is there such a thing? The traditional picture I suppose, right out of Hollywood or Dickens, is of the old patriarch slipping away, in his own bed and attended by his old wife and his children. He has lived a long life and lived it honorably. He murmurs his last, wise, words and is gone. A good death for a good man. If I say that such a death is devoutly to be wished, you will probably respond with the flippant, “Yeah right, you wish!” and so would I.

We have to accept death, having no choice, but we are under no obligation to accept it gracefully. “I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned,” wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay, and then, in one of the most beautiful headlong lines I know: “More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.”

Death is contemptible.

Which brings us back to Hector Torres and Stephania Gray. There is absolutely nothing you can come up with to mitigate the evil that was visited upon them. You can’t use the cancer scenario and squeeze a hard comfort from that suffering. You can’t put it down to randomness, to being in the wrong place at the wrong time (even a drunk driver doesn’t intend to kill, let alone to kill specific, targeted people). This man, this monster, said—Sweet Christ, I don’t know what he said, except that it clearly was all about himself, he being his own death-dealing god.

We did the best we could at the funeral. We sang the good, healing hymns, Hector’s kin and a couple of close friends spoke simply and eloquently about the man they had known, and the priest was the best lobbyist that the afterlife could have. On the way out, we cried and hugged.

After all, what else could we do?

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