One of my neighbors died around Thanksgiving. She was an elderly lady so it wasn’t a great shock but it was enough of one that I’m still thinking about her. I didn’t know her well. I’d only talked to her twice in the almost 5 years I’ve lived here. The first time was when she went around the neighborhood on her mobility scooter to hand out envelopes asking for donations to the American Heart Association (she’d survived a heart attack). The last time we’d spoken was when I returned their wayward dog. The inmate, a curly mop mini dachshund named Chuckles, liked to escape from their back yard. I went to return him to his prison and we chatted a bit about nothing in particular. After this, I’d usually hear him bark at me from their white fenced back yard as I came and went. They seemed nice, all three of them. I wish I could remember everyone’s names. Unfortunately only Chuckles’ name seemed to stick with me. The only clue I had that my scooter-bound neighbor had died was from seeing her family come and go after Thanksgiving. They were cleaning out the house and left a lot of stuff piled for the garbage truck. Inductive reasoning, my dear Watson.
I rarely thought of her at all unless I saw her or anyone around her home. They were always fleeting thoughts that vanished as soon as I got in the house or in my car. I probably thought about her more since she’d passed on than I did in all the years she’d spent alive and less that a couple of thousand feet away from me. I watched her family from the window in my office (between bouts of working) as they cleaned, painted, and fixed things. Sometimes the kids played outside, chasing each other with rollers or reading on the hood of a truck. The legacy of someone’s life in some small degree playing out in front of me. It was somehow both a little heartwarming and a little sorrowful at the same time.
And that brings me to something that happened this week. Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gigi, died in a helicopter crash. It’s shocking on a different and somehow similar scale. He was 41 and she was 13. They were both entirely too young as were the 7 other people who died with them. I rarely thought about Kobe or his daughter except for when I saw that meme of them talking at a basketball game. Probably less than I thought about my neighbor (odd that I know more about Kobe but I guess that says something about me that I don’t like). I’m sad for him and his daughter. I’m sad for the 7 other people that died along side them. I’m sad for their families most of all. I can empathize to a degree. I still remember thinking that the pain was going to be permanent; an ever-expanding galaxy where I’d never find the edge and would have to float in the darkness of it forever. It was permanent but became bearable over time and I’m grateful for the reason I have it.
I mention him because I had a conversation with someone who was upset because of the amount of public mourning. In this person’s mind, Kobe was a stranger to these people and a villain of sorts. There were greater tragedies to consider, in their opinion. I didn’t completely agree but I could see their point. Over 150,000 people die every day around the world. Every death is sad but we can’t stop and mourn the unknown. Unless we know them, it’s high level tragedy. We aren’t close enough to touch it or have it touch us. I understand why some grieve for Kobe and his daughter, too. I can’t articulate people feel like famous strangers are close to them. I’m not smart enough to speak about parasocial relationships but I know a little something about grief. Grief is a complicated emotion and emotions can’t be policed. I can’t pretend to know the totality of Kobe Bryant’s legacy. To some, he was more than a basketball player: he was a legend, a mentor, a role model. He was also a problematic person with a complicated background (and on some level aren’t we all). Others can speak about what he meant to them more than I could. But I can acknowledge that people can feel a multitude of ways about him without placing a judgment on that. It’s terrible that a person who made such an impact is gone. There’s a weight to it that I don’t feel but I can see.
I wonder if this isn’t all part of the contract agree to keep in continuing to be alive – that we have to face death. Not only of other people, including the ones we love, but our own death. It’s the deal we make every day we wake up and continue breathing. We will always be facing death on some level. I struggle with it. I used to lay awake at night thinking I could solve death like some word problem (if Erin is going 30 miles and hour headed north). But it can’t be solved. It simply is. There’s no getting around it. Sometime it can be delayed but death (O death, you fiend) is still waiting in the wings for the grand entrance. Or exit, I guess. Permanent impermanence. I guess if you work at it, you can avoid the reality of it. In a way, that’s both good and bad. We should be aware of the limited time everyone has here, ourselves included. If we’re lucky, it can inspire us to do great things with the time we have left. But I also think, what a wonder it is that we can be essentially surrounded by death and still find a way to feel something when we notice it. Somehow we aren’t all completely inured to it. We still feel the weight of loss, be it the loss of a stranger, a neighbor, a friend, a family member. And in this world that’s too big, too complicated, and too on fire, I’d like that to count for something.
I decided to look up my neighbor to find her name and I found her obituary. Her name was Dorothy. She was 98 years old and grew up in Iowa. During World War II, she was a defense worker at a bomber plant. Dorothy had 6 children, 12 grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren, and 2 great-great grandchildren. And a dog named Chuckles. I hope that she was the kind of person who will be missed by them all. If not for her sake, then definitely for theirs.