The Voracity of Death (November 16, 2014)

Early this week, a former colleague from the American Dental Association died suddenly. He went in his sleep after telling his wife in the evening that he didn’t feel well. The cause of death has not been made public, but it’s presumed to be some variation of heart attack/aneurysm/stroke. The arbitrary kind of turn that the story of life and its ending takes everyday.

Ed was in his late 50s. A few years ago, my friends and co-workers Diane and Jimmy volunteered for an Association charitable activity with me, as a change of civic pace from our usual happy hour/sushi bonding. Ed gave us all a ride in his car, which was just coated in dog hair, evidence of his pet devotion. He wasn’t the least bit concerned that we’d show up for duty at a food dispensary matted with health code violations. Ed was a weird, smart dude who loved a good debate and really didn’t worry about what people thought. I like weird, smart dudes. The world will be a little less interesting without him.

Later in the week, semi-famous reality TV star Diem Brown died at age 32 after a nine-year battle with ovarian cancer. This was on my radar in part because of a long and somewhat embarrassing love affair with MTV’s The Challenge, a competition series featuring former cast members from reality groundbreakers The Real World and Road Rules. I have a ceaseless appetite for frenemy tropes and the drunken, televised antics of my generation (and slightly younger people). It has a way of reinforcing that my own life choices are imperfectly acceptable.

There have been a bevy of seasons over the last decade with absurd “storylines,” fights and stomach churning behavior. What can I say? I traffic in highbrow and lowbrow in equal parts. But one narrative elicited no schadenfreude from viewers: the ongoing health battles of Diem Brown and her touching on again, off again relationship with ultimate sexy bad boy, CT Tamburello. Diem was always a competitor first, a conflicted lover second and a cancer patient third. CT brought out the best in Diem and never allowed her to hide her feelings or her chemo-induced baldness, even as he continued to make mistakes that drove them apart. They were an easy and beautiful pair for whom to root, and I always believed that once they finished sewing their respective wild oats, these two crazy kids would figure it out.

As of Friday, it is clear they’ll never have the opportunity. After her third battle with ovarian cancer, Diem succumbed to the disease, after devoting the best years of her young life to fighting it.

Of course all of this made me think of Jesika. Of ovarian cancer and how I might hate this killer above all others. The silent, hungry assassin sneaks up on the body, even the most carefully monitored and healthy ones, eating them slowly until it’s too late. All the while, the host feels just fine…until she doesn’t. And in too many cases, as the disease’s average age of onset continues to decline, she doesn’t get to marry the love of her life, or reach the full height of her cultivated career, or make a huge mess of it all and start over. She doesn’t get to do anything at all.

Ovarian cancer also claimed my paternal grandmother June, when she was in her 60s. I was there in her Wisconsin home-turned-hospice staging area in the summer of 1991. I was 12 years old watching her waste away, struggle to breathe. Grandma Crowley had six full-grown children and numerous grandkids. She’d been a great beauty who loved a good Manhattan. She’d lived. But that didn’t make it any easier to bear the live and needless suffering of one of the few adults who really gave a damn about my sister and I.

So much pain and death this week – for the living and those who experienced a karmic fluke or lost a war. So much futile anger and fervent wishing with no outlet. Such an inability to pull out a more profound lesson than the trite and oft-repeated warning to make every moment count.

Planning for the future is important. Some of us excel in the exercise, obsess about it. It’s a comforting illusion of control, a ritual we must repeat instead of scanning our environment fearfully or repeatedly rushing to the exam table. We will make our imprint. We will not be forgotten. We will not succumb to panic.

But the acts of living, of building, of wanting and working can, and often will be interrupted, painfully and prematurely. And there’s nothing we can do about it. That’s the truth. And it hurts.


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