A Single Death, Far Away

I learned last night of the death of a man with whom I had rare interactions for a period of about eleven years. He was the husband of a woman with whom I had much more frequent contact, as she was a member of the board of directors of an industry association my company managed and for which I served as executive director. The woman was (and remains) president of a successful company involved in the market research and customer satisfaction metrics industry. We were not close, but I liked and respected her and I think she liked and respected me. When I decided to close my business and live the good life, I stayed in touch with her and a few others from the association. Staying in touch may suggest closer ties; I occasionally saw her Facebook page and, courtesy of Facebook, I was regularly reminded of her birthday and I dutifully sent her birthday messages. Her most recent birthday was late last month. I send her a flip message and wished her a happy birthday that might involve wine and birthday pie. And then, yesterday morning, I got a text message from another woman who was involved with the association, telling me that the husband was living his last days and was on hospice treatment. I thanked her for letting me know. I went about my day, taking care of all the myriad preparations for our Cinco de Mayo party last night, a tamalada we had offered to our church for auction as a fundraiser. There was a lot to do to get ready for the party. I thought I’d wait to get in touch and offer my sympathy today, after the stress of the party was history. But, after the party was over and my wife and I were sitting outside on our screen porch, soaking in the cool temperatures and relaxing from a good but grueling day, I got another text.  The man died. That prompted me to stop procrastinating. I withdrew from the conversation and sent a message to the widow, expressing condolences.

I didn’t even know he was sick. I knew he’d battled cancer before, but I thought he’d beat it. Apparently, it returned with a vengeance. I didn’t know. Only after reading the widow’s message about her husband’s death yesterday did I learn he had been battling for months and months. Friends had come to visit. Family and friends had gathered around him for a long time, giving him support and boosting his mood (though he tended to be a funny guy who laughed through hardship, so he probably gave his visitors more than they gave him).

“Staying in touch” would have made me aware of the man’s battle. I didn’t stay in touch. I dabbled in superficial interactions so infrequent that news about a lengthy fight against cancer didn’t reach me. On the other hand, staying in touch is a two-way affair, so I do not blame myself entirely for not knowing about the man’s condition. And, as I think more about it, neither the woman nor her husband were actually friends of mine. They were business acquaintances with whom a casual connection continued on a massively reduced scale after the business reason for the connection disappeared.

But I knew the two of them and had occasion to see them and spend time with them, especially her, at least four or five times a year for eleven years. The realization that a lengthy, though not intense, relationship can simply dissipate into an ephemeral connection with the passage of time is somewhat disconcerting. When the man was ill several years ago, I offered encouragement and a shoulder to cry on. We were closer then. Not friends, but closer.

There’s nothing particularly unusual about relationships, whether personal or business, evaporating into the ether when the glue that holds them together—some degree of relatively frequent interactions and close proximity—loses its adhesive properties.  Yet I find that evaporation odd. And I can’t explain just why I find it odd. Odd may not be the right word. If there’s a word that means moderately and mystifyingly sad, that’s the word I’m looking for. In this particular situation, what’s moderately and mystifyingly sad is that my words of solace and condolence simply cannot have the same strength that those same words might have had before I closed my company. When I had a business and acquaintance  relationship with the woman, I think my words would have meant more to her. Of course I’m thinking of this through my own lens of experience and not from hers, but that’s the way I see it.

The man’s death does not leave a huge empty hole in my life, but it does (again, I assume) in hers. And there are others I do not know for whom his death is earth-shaking and ugly. This is all just part of experience on the planet and here I am trying to understand it by “talking it out.” That won’t happen. There’s nothing to understand. It just “is.” As the saying goes, “it is what it is.” Which says nothing but, then again, says it all.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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