The grateful and the dead

by Brian Clarey

They came from all over the country to send her off — hundreds of them, gathered in the Oriental Shrine Club on High Point Road, where the line at he buffet stretched past the fireplace and the mourners’ cars settled into the mud at the back of the parking lot.

They chewed sandwiches and brownies as they remembered her in life: her giving spirit, her powerful sense of family, her love of her community.

Well-wishers swamped her survivors at the back of the hall; there will be many prayer cards and covered dishes to come.

This is not a eulogy. I did not personally know the deceased. I don’t think I ever even met her. I came because I know the family and can feel their loss. I came to recognize and celebrate a life well lived. I came because that’s what you do when your friend’s mother dies: You show up, have a sandwich and try to impart what comfort you can.

I got some sense of who she was by flipping through her scrapbooks and family photo albums, meticulously labeled and footnoted.

I was struck by the threads of family resemblance, the inescapable hand of genetics. I made jokes about my friend’s haircut back when he used to have hair. Scanning the size of the crowd, we wondered to each other if, when our time comes, we would be able to draw this many people.

These are the things you do — but they are not the things I have always done.

There haven’t been many deaths in my family during my lifetime; for that I have been fortunate. I was four when my father’s mother died, and my sister and I were left out of the loop on that one. The only funerals I remember going to when I was small were for barely remembered cousins and distant relations.

My parents are still alive. So are the only grandparents I’ve ever known. My great-grandmother lived until she was 97, a function of careful living and strong genes. When I was a boy, my grandfather told me he’d live forever. He’s in his nineties now, too, and I know his time is coming.

We are all granted one life, and we all owe one death. That’s the Grand Equation, one I’ve spent much of my life up until now trying to ignore.

For most of my life, I have harbored an irrational fear of death — irrational because death is as natural as life, and it is the one thing we are all guaranteed to endure. Like it or not, it is going to happen. Fear will not change that.

In high school, a childhood friend, Bill Goss, fell out of a moving car and fatally cracked his skull. We were young, 15 or so, and it was the first time I ever lost someone I really knew. Bill and I grew up in the same neighborhood. Played on the same teams. He was a great baseball player, and it was hard for me to understand that he would never play again.

It just seemed so fi nal. In 1994, I lost a friend. Mike Realmuto flipped his car on the Loop Parkway on Long Island late one night. We were close, part of a small but tight crew that countered our gloomy career prospects by partying and traveling and making each other laugh. I couldn’t believe it.

Mike was made of gold, and now he would never finish school, never marry and start a family, never have a career, never get fat and lose his hair, never sit around with the rest of us talking about all the crazy crap we used to do.

It seemed senseless to me, and it reinforced everything I feared about dying. I descended into a pit of nihilism after that. Mike’s death proved to me that nothing mattered, that life was devoid of meaning, and that you might as well try to grab as many laughs while you could before the ride ended.

I got to do the things Mike never had a chance to: start a career, raise a family, make a home. I began to see that life could, indeed, have meaning. But the fear never fully left me until recently.

I’ve come to realize that, corny as it sounds, each day we have here is a gift, that when we focus on what’s important — family, charity, personal growth — the fear of leaving gradually subsides. And when we recognize and are thankful for all we’ve been given, the prospect of life far outweighs the specter of death.

My friend’s mother knew this, evidenced by the outpouring of support at her memorial service, by the smiles on the faces of her many survivors, by the carefully compiled scrapbooks and photos that documented the best days of her life.

I’m not ready to cash my chips in just yet — I’ve got too much more to do, many more miles to cover.

But sure as sunrise my time will come. And when it does I’ll be grateful for the life I’ve been given and ready to pay my final debt.