When we are young, dying is something aged relatives do from time to time. I was, as a child, always on the periphery of such events, subject to adult decisions about the degree of my participation. When my grandfather died in 1962, the sub-teen cousins were allowed to go to the viewing at his home, but not the funeral. We were all gathered up and tended to by an aunt's maid.
We become adults in time, and death is still mainly the province of aged relatives, though friends die in freak accidents and of rare, aggressive tumors, and heart attacks. But overall, death takes a backseat in our lives as we head into our thirties and forties.
Except when it doesn't. Some generations are hit hard, and at random.
The family cemetery in which I still hope to be buried is filled by the headstones of those- young and old- carried off by the influenza epidemic of 1918-19.
Many men of my generation wondered, quite seriously, if we'd see 35 as a rolling, mutating plague set upon us. We survivors all carry a giant personal memory quilt in our heads, bearing so many names taken too soon, and wonder, as we get old ourselves, how we escaped the reaper.
Now life has shifted, as President Clinton once remarked, into the period of more yesterdays than tomorrows. The aged relatives are all gone. We are the aged relatives, and our high school and college reunion letters are, more and more, bordered in black.
Death mocks our hope to avoid so many reckonings, and gloats over its random power to shock and dismay. Here is a report of the death of a friend whose demons overwhelmed him.
When we met, Jeff had built a successful restaurant, and I was trying to launch a book business. Having met no one but people who told me books were dead, and stores not far behind, Jeff, when I told him my plans, not only thought they had legs, but wanted in.
We spent several months conjuring a bookstore/cafe. It was an exciting, complementary concept, and offered the combination of our skills in ways that could boost both sides of the house. Where I counted deficits- looks, personality, mastery of the fickle arts of retail- he reveled in luxurious surpluses. He would have put the sizzle on the steak.
Then, some other friends made a better offer: a new eatery down on the coast. Restaurant/bar people are born to it: it's the stage on which they perform their working lives.
Jeff walked away from our project to pursue his vision, and I carried on with mine. I filed the experience under "it made sense at the time", nursed my bruised ego, and never heard from Jeff again. Occasionally I heard of him second-hand, and always hoped he'd find his dream at the water's edge.
As was the case with my Oxford friend Phil Geddes, a journalist killed in an IRA bombing of Harrod's 35 years ago, the shock of the news is compounded by knowing his parents, wonderful people who stuck it out with him when things were dire. And now they must bury their son.
I moved Jeff to the "What If?" file tonight, where the cold cases rest, and I know no answers will come.