Death. Every year it reaches out and takes some of our favorites: this year Henry Fonda, Natalie Wood, Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman. Usually they're older; we expect it and take it rather well. Perhaps this is so because they have achieved their ends, peaked in their careers and served themselves, or at least us, well.
All in all we seem to grieve a bit, and then accept these "media" deaths in a collective national stride. But consider the local unheralded death like the one a few months ago that brought a number of us together to attend a funeral at St. Camillus Church in Silver Spring. We were there to grieve the death and honor the life of one of the city's unknowns who at 32 died unexpectedly of lung cancer.
She was Linda Harris Nelson and her obituary in The Washington Post carried all the perfunctory information common in such notices: born in Elmhurst, Ill.; moved here at age 2; Maryland University graduate; law school alumnus of Catholic University; law clerk for Judge Melbourne of Prince George's County, and attorney with the firm of Goodell, Landfield, Becker and Green here in Washington.
Her picture appeared and they listed her surviving parents, sisters and brothers, and me, her husband. Considering the space constraints of any large city newspaper, it was an appropriate notation of her death. But for many of us that didn't reduce the gravity of her loss to a barely reportable event.
Her death was more than that, just as the death of each of us is more than the pitiful pen and ink that proclaims such a passage. She had not been one of those people who capture a share of "fame," which by its nature is so intense and utterly superficial. To those of us at St. Camillus that Tuesday morning, it was the end of a life that indeed had been extraordinary and wonderfully human in the small and quiet ways, the secret ways, that define the boundaries of most of our lives.
If first met Lin during her sophomore year at Maryland University just after her 20th birthday. She was tall, blond, pretty, innocent and unknowingly sexy. She spoke easily and well with a candor and belief that you knew was genuine and would never flag.
So our romance began. We married, and after five years together we separated. Perhaps, these days, it's too much to expect two hard-headed and rather competitive individuals to have a happy marriage, particularly when one is a lawyer and the other is on her way to becoming one. In any event, we separated and began building new lives over the next four years until Lin contracted lung cancer and was gone two weeks to the day after the diagnosis.
As I stood in the pew that summer's morning recalling our relationship and the tragic, miserable vigil at the hospital, it dawned on me just how extraordinary and wonderfully human this woman had been. Standing next to me was Lin's boyfriend, a fellow I had known for only a few weeks yet already liked and admired. I saw gentleness and compassion in his eyes and I knew how easily they must have come together.
To me our standing there together somehow best measured the quality of Lin's life. Throughout her brief existence, she had always had an uncanny knack of making people comfortable and bringing them together. Now, even in death, she somehow managed it again.
Sitting down then, I continued to think, scanning the crowd to smile when I saw her beer-drinking crowd sad, but also comfortable, sitting among her young lawyer friends. Looking further still, I took in the utter diversity of those in attendance. I knew most of them: the bartenders, waitresses, judges, law partners, and the legions of friends from the neighborhood taverns, her schools, the courthouse, former work places, and a few otherwise lost souls without any definable connection that somehow she had just found.
The personalities and life styles ran the gamut, but the most curious thing wasn't that her death had drawn this diverse group together, I began to think, but rather, through her, most of them had met and long since cemented strong friendships among themselves.
More so than I had ever seen at other funerals, it was a crowd that knew each other and knew the burden of each other's relative grief for the young woman lying beneath the altar. Again and again, it came back to me, that special quality that she had possessed with such ease and used so unfailingly.
A life's story is much more than that, of course. No doubt that's why all obits are doomed to forever record the mundane bits of dross that define a person. It's what the biggest and best of us share with the completely unknown in death.
Like those of many others, her death was a tragedy without human logic. Yet it came home to roost and enter our lives like no death before it. So it is that each generation is confronted with the realities of life: growing up, growing old, getting sick and dying. And we wonder what it all means, this suffering, the pitiful ending of what once was so beautiful and promising.
For Linda a deep and abiding belief in her Catholic upbringing hopefully sustained her during her last hours and comforted her family at her death. Among the 400 or so at St. Camillus, something similar was expressed in many through their respective faiths. As for those of us who didn't have the certainty of faith that day, we feel cheated and pitifully grope for a way to keep alive her promise, her dreams.
There isn't any. Instead, we'll carry our loss through the remaining years, and later -- much later -- along with the burden, take solace, and maybe even smile in the memory of what she was.