Saturday, March 21, 2009

Quoth the Raven: Wear a Helmet!

Today there was a flight of hundreds of grackles. As they moved in a black cloud through the tops of the trees, the branches swished and swayed as if there were a wind. My sister has a suspicion such flocks come with death. I hoped they were merely migrating.

The other morning, I ran into a former neighbor who had once been a hospice nurse. We stood in a crowded subway car and talked about Natasha Richardson, the actress who had just died as a result of a skiing accident. I was feeling the fragility of life.

My ex-neighbor remarked that it was medically unfortunate that Richardson had fallen as she did.

“Other places in the body, like your arm, there is someplace for the swelling to go,” she said. “But not in the brain, not with the casing of the skull.”

The person next to us shifted an inch or two away.

As it turns out, my former neighbor no longer works directly with patients. She has a desk job that involves following up on the conditions of people who’ve contracted certain serious illnesses, gathering data for others to analyze.

When she puts in a call to person who has contracted a usually debilitating disease and that person actually answers the phone, she is flooded with joy. “They often say to me, ‘You’re the first person who’s been cheerful!’”

She’s happy because she knows what the odds really are.

As a public health worker, she knows that some percentage of people with certain illnesses is always going to die. The most she can hope for is a reduction in the proportions.

The truth of statistics, however, is no help with grief. “What do you say to the parents?” she said. They’ve lost a child. “It’s—it’s not tragic,” she said, “but it’s awful.”

I had a sudden vision of a flock of birds. Who knows which passing bird will die, or how or when? It could be any of them, any of us, at any time.

Clutching my metal pole, hurtling through a dark underground tunnel on a train crammed with people, I felt a rare sense of communion with all the other beings striving so hard to live.

Quite unexpectedly, I also felt a profound sense of relief.

Some deaths occur for reasons that have nothing to do with flaws, where nothing is specifically to blame, where nothing has gone differently, really, than it should have.

We can always try to reduce the percentages, but still, we’re all just part of a statistical pattern. Whenever anyone goes, it is awful.

Not tragic, but awful.

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