How Long Will You Live?

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By Bill Koch


Several years ago, while at the gym, I used to talk to a man in his 80s. He was remarkable, insightful and genuine.

You could say he was young at heart and mind. He seemed to be always contemplating new ideas, willing to examine new phenomenon and open to new experiences.

He was a delight.

One day, he stopped going to the gym. We had heard he had contracted a lethal form of cancer and had died within two weeks.

Another fellow, in his 70s, lost his wife suddenly. Although he frequently bemoaned her fitful and fretful perspectives and her apparent cantankerousness, her death took him by surprise. Although it’s been more than two years, he still mourns. He remembers her very fondly and the loneliness from her absence seems to devour him at times.

A man in his early 30s, with a very long ponytail, ran into a pickup truck a few years ago. The man was riding a motorcycle and the truck driver, who may have been cited by police, apparently didn’t seem to recognize or register that the motorcycle had the right of way.

We learned the man on the motorcycle died. Another man who worked in a nearby supermarket meat market found the motorcycle man’s death upsetting and angrily made sure others would acknowledge or mourn the man’s death.

One after another. Sometimes it comes as a surprise. The death of loved ones inevitably changes survivors’ lives.

While I don’t dare explore the theological ramifications of passing from this life, I do want to remind that death is indiscriminate and sometimes even ravenous.

In a moment, its stark reality can strike – with an unseemly swagger. What follows is the natural flow of sincere and gracious lamenting of the loss of precious human life and the celebration of the cherished impact the dead one’s life had on others.

As a teenager I got into a fist fight with Steve Paape, my next door neighbor. A year or so later, I was told he and Brad Gamble, both on their motorcycles, both teenagers, slid into a cement truck. It was a double fatality. Steve’s father died recently.

We cried at Steve’s funeral. The girl friend of Steve’s brother grew up to become a television reporter. A couple of Steve’s friends became lawyers. Mike, who was none of our friends, was shot to death by Alaska state troopers in an exchange of gunfire. (No one we knew mourned Mike’s passing.)

The stories go on. And on. And on. So many shattered lives. So many grieving hearts, often in isolation and anonymity. Are we numb? Are we just existential zealots in a tragic world?

We can’t avoid death. Although it may sound like a brutal cliché, we all have our own individual appointments with our own demise.

This may even feel like an adolescent lament, but why can’t we celebrate each other while we live? Why must we traipse through the sundry troubles and toils when life’s end will steal it all away in a naked moment? In one last breath – desperate, embittered or joyous and fulfilling.

Why must we erect petty grievances when tomorrow may never arrive? When what awaits us on the horizon of this strange experience of being human is always beyond our comprehension?

To answer that dilemma, an ancient theologian once said: “Rejoice. Again I say, rejoice.”

Perhaps that’s the balm for our days. Perhaps that ought to be the attitudes of our hearts.

Let’s salute each other. Let’s celebrate our human community. Let’s mark our short trajectories – 60 years, 70 years, 80 years, 90 years, maybe 100 – with brightness and passion. Let’s leave something behind as we move on to what’s beyond.

Let’s recall our brilliant mortality for the sake of our heroes.