Sunday October morning. The reds and yellows are already out in the West Virginia hills, mixed with the greens the way I like them best. If West Virginia is God’s country, and Sunday is God’s day, then autumn is God’s season, even if it does evoke a feeling of melancholy, a gentle reminder of death.
I live too fast, as most of us do. Routinely fast. The American way of life is fast-lane living, and I’ve picked up the habit. So even though, on this warm autumn morning, nature is inviting me outdoors for a leisurely walk in the countryside, I decline. I have things to do. Nothing earth-shaking. My regular routine.
I start my day with a coffee downtown at a local restaurant, my Sunday habit, coffee over the newspaper, perusing the Saturday football scores, before I tackle the unfinished business left over from the workweek: overdue bills to get in the mail, overdue papers to correct, a messy desk to organize, dishes that have piled up in the kitchen sink. My God, I am already 1,000 miles late in changing the oil in the car. The day will be three-fourths consumed just catching up.
But first I bury my head in the Sunday paper, in the trivia of football scores. After sports and a brief glance at the headlines, and into my second cup of coffee, I skim through the local pages. In the obituaries, there is a picture of a handsome young man who looks disturbingly familiar. At first I think there has been a mistake, since, yes, I know this boy. His picture has been in the paper before, as the lead in local musicals and the No. 1 singles player on the school tennis team. He was also in my freshman English class last year, a gifted writer, sensitive, creative. Surely his picture is here for some new accomplishment.
But no. My second look confirms it. He is dead. Killed last night in a car accident in Morgantown.
When someone I know dies suddenly, my first reaction is to call out some belated warning, a futile and unconscious protest against the finality of death. God, son, be careful. The highway is the No. 1 killer of young adults. Treat the car as a lethal weapon. Wear your seat belt. Don’t get into a car with anyone you even suspect has been drinking. Those are the things I tell my own son, also a student at Morgantown. I visited him there only the weekend before. I am familiar with the street on which this boy crashed, and I remember how fast and carefree the traffic was. It is easy to imagine an accident there. Youth will be thoughtless. Youth will be reckless. Youth will think itself immortal. Be careful, son.
Slowly it sinks in. Not my son, but somebody’s son has fallen victim to a senseless accident, and all warnings, all cautions, for this boy are now too late. Outside the restaurant window, nature dawns a new day in the succession of days, seemingly endless, but this one boy has gone out of life, ceased to be. Why are these reminders of life’s ephemerality always a shock? What would this rising day mean to this boy, full of brightness and promise, if he could have another chance?
Driving home, I felt vaguely ashamed of myself for how I live, caught up in routine, running from task to task, not really taking time to soak in the beauty and mystery of life, out of touch with the fact that we all die one day. Maybe years from now, maybe tomorrow, maybe this very hour. The boy’s death brings home to me again and again that underneath all my busyness and accomplishments, small and large, I am just traveling through this existence. I am only a guest here. My skull exists ever so closely beneath my skin.
Morbid? I don’t think so. Morbid is the way I lose touch with life’s depths through my illusions of getting somewhere, through my soul-deadening routines.
When I get back home, I don’t get out of the car right away. I sit there and think for a while of the dead boy, who could have been my boy, who could have been me, who IS my boy, IS me, in the sense that no life ever escapes death and grief of loved ones, and in that no person is an island, but the loss of one diminishes us all.
In the mountains the reds and yellows of death are coming in, inexorably and wonderfully. In the distance, I hear some crows cawing. Both my ears and eyes are more open. And football scores and plans for the day have been put in a sad and clear perspective. That afternoon I take a long walk in the West Virginia hills. Almost heaven.