The Capriciousness of Death

 

In Nice, France, a truck drives into a crowd, mowing down individuals who are enjoying a national day of celebration. There is no particular target, just innocent people. The truck plows into the crowd on a sidewalk, suddenly swerves and takes down people on the other side of the street, then swerves again, returning to the first side, then swerves back again and, well, we know the outcome: 84 dead and more than 200 injured; people of all ages: innocent, unsuspecting, unprepared.

When we talk of end of life matters, it’s usually focused on the aged, the infirm, the ill and suffering. But death happens suddenly and unexpectedly all day, every day, throughout the world. I remember reading a few years ago about a woman, eight months pregnant, driving home from work on I-880. 

The starter from the vehicle in front of her fell out of that car and flew through her windshield, killing her instantly. Another woman, more recently driving on I-80 near Fairfield, was traveling at the speed limit but her car was hit by a falling tree. She too died instantly.

There are so many pieces here to dissect. First, none of these victims likely ever thought when they set out that morning that they would not be returning home. They didn’t think it necessary to tell anyone where the key to their safe deposit box was; that they wanted to be cremated and really didn’t want any kind of a memorial service; that they were sorry they had stormed away in anger after having words with their father on their last visit.

While thinking through this topic, I thought of the dilemma that my editor and publisher would face if I died suddenly. For the 16 years that the Alameda Sun has been in existence, I have produced every single weekly calendar, mostly working from home. Many of my calendar tools live in my head; the rest are housed in a filing system that would need to be deciphered by my editor. That is, if my family knew where to look for it.

We modern-day people live complex lives. We have paperwork. It’s not good enough for us to know where the important documents are when those papers may be needed in the event we just aren’t here anymore. 
We have vast online presences, active lives in social media. Do we know how these will be closed? 

We have appointments and in-progress projects: work, medical, personal business, creative. I have three written projects my family might cash in on in the event of my sudden death … if they knew where to look for them. And, we have stuff.

This is the part where I get to speak to the comment I often hear: “If I’m dead, I won’t care about my stuff.” My answer to that is that you may not care, but your kids will. Or your siblings, or friends, or your landlord. Someone will have to deal with your stuff. 

There is so much more to say about all of these components, but the one that continues to nag at me is the randomness of death. Think of being in the line of imminent danger as that truck in Nice swerved toward you. But, suddenly, as the person next to you falls, the truck swerves away from you and into people who believed themselves to be horrified observers. Until they were victims.

A God-fearing person might say it’s God’s will. Those of us who believe this have our own explanations about why a loving God would allow bad things to happen. A non-believer would say it’s all random. For the word “random,” the thesaurus offers up “accidental, arbitrary, unsystematic, unplanned, haphazard, chance.” Sounds like being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But why was that car on I-80 going just the “right” speed for the timing to be so perfect that the tree fell exactly on that woman’s car? Why that woman? Why that car? Why that day?

For days after the Nice tragedy, my daughter continued to be troubled by it. A mom of a toddler, she was distressed by how high intentions and devoted vigilance may not be enough to protect her son from an ill fate. I spoke of the random element as a reminder that our sense of control over our lives is little more than an illusion.

“That doesn’t make me feel any better, Mom,” she said. “It makes me feel like we are little more than bugs about to be squashed.”

But that’s a topic for another time. For now, I don’t profess to have any answers or special insights. I’m just trying to shine a light.

 

 

Laurel Yeates is a daughter, wife, mother, grandmother, doula, nanny, Alameda Sun calendar editor and a nascent thanatologist.