What death taught me about living and other tales of inspiration.
When a number of celebrities die, the nation takes a collective breath and talks about the effect they had on lives. For sometime I've been sharing stories about loss and legacy. Thinking about living life with the end on mind and how people will remember me when I go. Famous people will always have articles about them, particularly when they die. They don’t need more words from me, so I am drawn to talk about more personal connections and how my life has been touched by those you many not have ever heard of, but affected those left behind profoundly. It’s a rough time of year for me, I’m sure many of you share that kind of experience. For some it’s the holiday season or whatever Hallmark holiday reminds you of the gaping hole in your heart someone once filled. This time of year marks the passing of several people I had the pleasure of knowing.
To set the mood, I share these eloquent and stark words my son wrote in a speech he gave at the end of high school. “You are one person, out of 7 billion, on one planet out of eight, one solar system out of hundreds of billions of solar systems, in one galaxy surrounded by trillions. In an infinite universe, you, everyone around you, everyone you know, have known, and ever will know is infinitely insignificant. And they will each die, including you.”
You always remember your first…
There’s a person who died sometime in your life that awakened you to mortality. It’s like you’re going along from childhood to adolescence and adulthood, feeling pretty invincible then BAM! For me, it was Chuck. He was a really cool and amicable guy who lived in the neighborhood. A bit older than the rest of us, he had a ‘real’ job and read books that weren't assigned. I can still visualize how his lanky frame sauntered down the street with his utility belt of carpentry tools, on his way back from the city. He loved Pink Floyd and clutched a worn and dog eared copy of “Dune”. The story around his death was that he was mourning a broken heart, high and drunk, tried to cross a highway, the victim of a hit and run. He was in his early twenties, light snuffed out before it had a chance to experience more.
It taught me crappy things happen to nice people and there isn't much you can do about it. Life will go on, bands will continue to tour, then break up, and people who introduce you to the concept of trilogies may not be around to know how it ends. Death cheats us of opportunities and reminds us to enjoy all you can in the moment. While Chucky was around he lit up the room, shared his knowledge, his beer, some tunes and was a joy to be around. We should all be so pleasant.
Parents & family.
Losing a parent is hard, in the best of circumstances, as well as in less than ideal ones. The heartbeat you heard from the inside, the face(s) you gazed into as your eyes took focus. The ones you blamed, found fault with, criticized and loved unconditionally, inspired you, respected, want to emulate and swore you would never be like. They are those you find yourself wishing…were someone else, or you were more like, or wish you had more time with. It’s complicated and simple all at once.
There are all kinds of hopes, dreams and wishes in our hearts, some because of the parental figure in our lives, some in spite of them. Thoughts about the way we want to live and how we desire to go about life is greatly influenced by them. What I learned from losing my mom and other family members is: what you wish you had said when there was time, will haunt you. I know my mother always wanted good things for me, though her idea of what they were and mine didn't always align. I hope in the end she wasn't disappointed by me, just as I hope my son won’t be ashamed. I took him on a six week trip through four countries after I settled her estate, because I didn't want his memory of her or me to be about cleaning out residual clutter after the person is gone. I wish we been able to talk more and though I never doubted her love for me, I wonder if there was anything I did she was proud of. I only ever heard her praise me from another room, as she was speaking with a friend. Being a child of a Tiger Mom is probably why I tell him often how proud I am of his accomplishments.
One of my favorite uncles died a year or so after, and my most vivid memory of him was as we returned from a family meal. It had been rainy all day, and as we pulled up to the house, the rain was just tapering off. My son got out of the car, and did what any kid would do, he headed straight into the puddle. As I started to chide him for getting wetter, my uncle intervened. He said, there are not enough times in our lives we take a moment to enjoy simple bliss. We get far too involved in the things we should do, the way we should act and what others think. He told me back then, how we should take time and relish the moment, and with that, my uncle joined my son in the puddle and the two of them splashed around and giggled with delight.
I wish I had taken his advice to heart that day, but as we are all prone to do, we lose ourselves in the day to day and forget. It takes a loss, to reassess; a heartache, to be kinder to ourselves. It’s easy to think what would make us happy. Funny thing, after all these years, with years of memories and interactions, it’s that puddle I remember.
When loss happens we must all turn the page. No matter how much we want to go back, just like every novel, it’s time to start a new chapter. The brilliant thing is, we bring forth with us, all that we learned in the pages before; that knowledge and experience goes with us. So, I continue to turn the page and move forward with more purpose…just don’t count on me to get anywhere fast, I’m probably splashing around in a puddle.
Perhaps we can find solace when people die at an older age and had lived what many would consider a ‘full life’; though I would argue that their loved ones will tell you it was still too soon.
I've long believed the sum of our lives can be found in those we touch, and the tapestries of interwoven lives paint pictures of our ideal of a life well lived. When people have lived to a ‘ripe old age’ and their lives are recounted, there is usually laughter to compliment the tears, and though there is loss, there is also a legacy. We are treated to tales of mischief and great love, which are probably meant to accompany each other. As you hear them, like their loved ones, we wish we had had more time with them. Glad we were simply fortunate to have shared some moments and smiles along the way.
One woman I knew was a relentless learner who always had time to encourage others. After raising a family and losing her first husband, she went back to school and earned several degrees, including a law degree and later a doctorate at the age of 61. Which is the same time she married her second husband after being a widow for a decade. We shared meals from the time my son was a toddler, and through the years whenever I saw her, she would ask how things were going, and encourage me through transitions, including my divorce, job loss and the death of my mother, and always asked about my son. She showed me you were never too old to learn or to fall in love; and the importance of taking a moment to say a kind word and support a friend.
A gifted speaker once told of a life unfulfilled, no matter the length, when one does not help improve the lives of others. ‘You could live to be 100’, he said, ‘but if at age 30 you decide not to contribute in a positive way, those 70 years will only be a postponement of a death that happened long ago.’ May we all have lives well lived.
I’m at the age where more of my contemporaries are dying. There were a couple of high school classmates I didn't know well in school, but had a profound effect on my life. I remember when the lot of us started joining FB, there as a guy from our class who was very sweet, always had a kind word and “liked” everything people posted. We thought it was a bit odd, but in a nice way. We smiled and mused how Mitch spent an inordinate amount of time there reading and liking everything we all did. A few years ago, we lost him to cancer. It was a blow and we quickly realized what drew him to be on Facebook and why he did what he did. Towards the end, a couple of us stumbled onto his heartfelt post in which he shared his plight and epiphany (https://www.navigatingcancer.com/members/xpoytld/experiences/a-year-ago-today-from-january-29th-2009-on-facebook).
Gigi and I reconnected on Facebook, as many people have and we immediately recognized each other as kindred spirits. Our mutual love of travel, sometimes sinister sense of humor and love of a good story among other things brought us closer together. We spent time chatting about our kids, the men in and out of our lives, high school, classmates and many, many things that, more often than not, brought tears of laughter. We quickly made up for those lost years, the ones between adolescence and getting a clue as to what you want in life. Between the mini reunions, shared dinners, happy hours, Facebook messages, calls and texts, our friendship blossomed. It was about the time of Mitch’s death, Gigi was diagnosed with breast cancer. I remember her sharing the conversations she had with Mitch who nudged her into getting checked out and spoke to her about how he chose to focus on the things that truly mattered. In the same breath she told me about her diagnosis, she said she was going to get certified to scuba dive.
She truly took Mitch’s message to heart, but those around her knew, she was always someone who embraced life. Her smile was contagious, she loved to dance, travel and was always game for just about anything. It was apparent in her choice of vocations; as a midwife, hers was the smile and loving arms that welcomed hundreds, if not thousands of babies into this world. As a loving mother to three fabulous young ladies, she raised them to be confident and warm, just like all the women in her life. Her life was a consistent theme showing her courage and zest for life. She truly embraced a ‘joie de vivre’ lifestyle. It’s not to say she wasn't disappointed, sad or angry about the cancer, but the mood would not last long as she quickly turned a symptom into a joke and heartache into a laugh. For Gigi, it was always about how she was living, not the disease that was stealing precious time away. There was always something to look forward to, a place to go, smiles to share. It wasn't until just before her death her strength crumbled a bit and she posted her frustration, but through it her message was loud and clear- “DO NOT TAKE ANYTHING FOR GRANTED”. 363 days after my mom died, we lost Gigi.
There are many lessons I've learned along the way, the ones that matter aren't taught in prestigious institutions of learning. What’s truly important has been taught to me by people I met there. Mitch and Gigi have helped me change, grow and evolve. Many of my classmates and other friends continue to teach me how people should be respected and cared about, lifestyle choices, leadership, and sacrifice.
Gigi didn't set out to be a hero, but she is. She didn't plan to be an inspiration, but will continue to be. She didn't want to be a role model because of the way she dealt with adversity, so we honor her by focusing on how she lived her life, not how she faced her death. When people come into your life, whether for a day or a season, they change you…sometimes for the better. Gigi will always be a part of me, someone so profoundly full of life cannot help but leave a lasting legacy. There are not many like her, though there should be; those who were fortunate to come close are lit by a soul fire that burns warm inside. It is our mandate to pass the torch along and share the flame with everyone you meet. Ours is a mission to laugh and sing and dance wherever and whenever we can. We need to go forth bringing light into the world and appreciate all that we can. It is in this way, these incredible life energies live on, they cannot be destroyed….they just pass from soul to soul continuing to brighten our world.
Measured in value and impact.
He was not a wealthy man, he never won any awards, broke records, nor had he done anything remarkable in the conventional sense. He didn't reach his 50th birthday; this is not a surprise, after years of drugs and alcohol usage, his tired body had little strength to fight back the advanced leukemia that plagued him. Not a lot of people knew his name, and in the end, his passing was only noted by a handful. It was of no great consequence, simply another (semi) homeless man who lived outside society’s constraints and off the grid, who died quietly and not matter much….but it will.
Gary was just another character from the neighborhood. He wasn't a bad looking kid, never meant any harm, a bit of a nuisance at times; mushy and goofy when he got drunk….which could be said about any of us. He had a big crush on one of my friends. Several years passed and I lost track of him until a conversation with one of my best friends. It was one of those, “you won’t believe this “, morsel of trivial information I learned, kind of things. “Have you ever heard of ‘The Mayor of Strawberry Fields’?” By then, I didn't live in NYC and was not really in tune with personalities like him, the Naked Cowboy, and wouldn't have had any idea who the Soup Nazi was, if not for Seinfeld. Anyway, she told me this guy from the old neighborhood was the one and only… the homeless guy who put flowers around the “Imagine” mosaic in Strawberry Fields aka The Mayor. My next trip home, I stopped by to see for myself and there he was, Gary, not much had changed…but it had.
Who knew? He had become an integral part of Central Park and quickly became incorporated into guided tours (you can find a YouTube video of his spiel). People from all over the world had seen or heard of him by this time, and there was even a documentary about him. (A work he’s never received any compensation from, I might add. I even contacted the creator and sent a nasty note about exploiting someone and not even buying a cup of coffee or drink, but I digress. )
Subsequent trips, I brought my son to meet him and introduced other friends to the minor celebrity who always greeted me with a smile and hug. He was entertaining, holding court, as it were; though my classmate, Joe, who works for the NYPD in the Park can tell you he was a bit of a nuisance, though harmless; I guess somethings never change. As the years went on, he got city housing and even a cellphone. He would call me now and again to say hello, sometimes I would answer, at times I just let it go to voicemail; chances were he was high or slightly intoxicated, wanted to tell me about a concert he managed to get into or some celebrity who came through the park and stopped to talk to him. He would always sign off by saying, “Peace & love”. I’d wait a day or so and call back, just to hear him tell it again.
It’s interesting how people touch a life. What leads a person to collect flowers and assorted decorations, day after day for 20 years to adorn a piece of ground? Even when they don’t know where their next meal will come from or where they will sleep at night? How many people overlook another cause they don’t appear to have anything to contribute? Who is to say what a legacy should look like and what’s important? What life is important and how do you judge the worth of a person or what they do?
Gary Dos Santos was just a guy from my old neighborhood. We grew up together, drifted apart and reconnected. For 20 years, he became part of an experience for millions of people who will never know his name, and helped form memories of a lifetime. When his time came I envisioned John Lennon welcoming him with open arms, telling him he did good. He was The Mayor of Strawberry Fields and he was my friend. I hope as he embarked on his journey, he knew he made a difference and touched lives; the world is better for him having been in it. Others may follow in his footsteps, placing flowers in tribute, and to some, it may seem the same…but it won’t be.
Then there’s my friend, Rich aka Hoseboy. Unlike Gary’s quiet passing, Lt Rich Nappi of the FDNY was sent off in style and grandeur, as he should be. He was and will always be regaled as a hero. The entire city of New York knew of his passing and the news made it across the Pond. Mayor Bloomberg delivered his eulogy and over 20,000 firefighters from several states came to pay their respects. There is a bridge and street named for him, the NY Rangers, NY Mets and Bruce Springsteen commemorated him.
Those who read or watched the news stories, or attended the concert or games only got a small glimpse of a man who was larger than life.
I first met him online (on a Bruce Springsteen fan board), the first time in person was during The Rising tour in ’03. Who knew from that moment on, my life would be just a bit more colorful, with a smattering of sarcasm, doses of witty repartee and heavy on the laughs.
Our lives intertwined around music and stories involving our love of Springsteen songs, the nutty community who follows the singer and our respective kids. He loved life, was incredibly generous, laughed loudly and often. He was a true hero- not only during 9/11 and in the aftermath at Ground Zero, but when he helped friends and family as well as charities like St Baldricks. Past his gruff and snarky humor was a heart of gold. Revered and respected by his colleagues, as big as his heart was, it could not endure as he died fighting a fire. The words on the Fallen Firefighters Foundation notes, “ Every firefighter who ever had the good fortune to spend time with Rich quickly understood the true meaning of a ‘Brother Firefighter.” Embossed on the bracelet on my wrist honors him as “The Minister of Tact & Decorum”. I wear it to remind me to work and love passionately, and not to take myself so seriously.
The poetic lyrics by Jonathan Larson said it best…
Not in daylights, in sunsets… In midnights, in cups of coffee…(nor) In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife.
We won’t count five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes or five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred journeys to plan. The way we will measure the life of a woman or a man is in LOVE.
Thank you for sharing your lives and lessons with us.
Just as my son ended his speech, I will leave you with his closing remarks: Out of these trillions of solar systems, and their billions of galaxies, on the one planet out of our eight that can support life, out of seven billion people, you are unique, there is no one else like you in the entirety of the universe, you can create music and art, there are people who love you and care about you. You are infinitely significant. Have fun.~ JD Wessinger