A friend of mine died today. I got the call at 6:30 in the morning, as I was lacing up my running shoes. It was simultaneously a surprise and an anticipated event. Maybe death is always like that, waiting in the wings, suddenly taking over the stage. Lewis Brownback was 35; he had been infected for 14 years with the virus that causes AIDS.
We never really talked about death, not at length anyway. But our conversations glanced off it occasionally; he was blunt about the impending brevity of his life. I think I saw the shadow of death in his eyes long before he told me he had AIDS.
We met a few years ago when I was living in New York and dropped by the small antique shop owned by a friend. I met Lewis' dog first, a tiny round tuft of black fur scurrying around the store, miraculously avoiding all the precious antiques that sat precariously in the way. In a whirlwind of efficiency, Lewis--also a friend of the store's owner--was rearranging the merchandise, periodically grumbling about so many things crammed into such a small space. After that day he was a dependable presence in my Upper West Side neighborhood. Especially when the weather got warmer, I could count on strolling down the street in the evening and finding him at one of the outdoor restaurants. I'll remember him for all the long cocktail conversations that stretched into the "maybe-we-should-eat" hour.
When someone we care about dies, other feelings mingle with the inevitable sadness; there is a reverence for each hour, each shiver of wind, each splash of sunlight on wet leaves. The day is different and, if we're lucky, so are the ones that follow. We float, buoyed by something we can neither define nor ignore. There is a remove, a disconnectedness from people, from the ordinary "busyness" of daily life, but also an awareness of the thread that binds us to one another, fragile humans that we are. We're all going to die; it's such an obvious point, yet we don't linger on it until death floats in, reminding us that it's always around--patient, waiting.
We have said goodbye to so many because of AIDS. The numbers resemble combat statistics. It is a war against a disease that keeps outsmarting us. We tend to use battle terms, words like "fight" and "conquer." Then, in the quietest hours of night, we wonder how we will fit in all the grieving. It is said that people who have lived in war-ravaged countries are unable to recall what life was like before. Was there a time when they weren't stumbling over death?
I don't want to forget the world that was before this disease entered our lives and our lexicon, before it became so entrenched in our society that it's barely front-page news anymore. I don't want to forget, yet the years preceding AIDS often seem a fantasy.
The cause of Lewis' death was listed as "cardiac arrest." His body was so riddled with infection that his heart just got tired. I think that happens to the rest of us, the survivors. Our hearts become weighed down by grief. Yet we seem to sense that pushing it away, denying its existence, accomplishes little. If we explore death, try to come to some understanding of it, we will move closer to what is essential about life.
When I was a child, I overheard my grandfather commenting on how difficult it was to get old and see more and more of his friends die. That's how I thought life unfolded: Death visited more often the older that one got. There was a sequence to it, an orderliness.
We are all too young, casualties and survivors of AIDS, to have said so many goodbyes. By anyone's definition, 35 is too soon to die; some victims never reached puberty. The names will stretch for miles, even if we find a cure tomorrow.
Despite that, there is a sweetness threaded through the sadness of this day. In the inevitable letting go, the loosening of our grip on memories and relationships, we must hold tighter to the mysterious interplay between life and death. If we don't, something in us dies prematurely; it is the sense of wonderment, of not knowing, a vague notion that there just might be something beyond this life.
It also could be that, if we are more accepting of death, we will in turn live our lives more gracefully. It might be the best way to honor all those we have lost.
Patti Davis is a writer living in Santa Monica, Calif.