There are just some kind of men who—who're so busy worrying about the next world they've never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results.
― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Like many of my friends, I was sad to hear that Harper Lee passed away last week. It might be that I’m making a quick slide into my 50’s, or just that the Internet is miraculous with delivering news like this, but it feels as though we’re in a season of loss: David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Umberto Eco, Harper Lee, all recently departed from us. These are voices I’ve heard in my ears throughout a good part of my life. They were presences to me, through their work and their legacy. And each one offered a kind of nurturing to my creative psyche.
They were my heroes.
Am I a better person because David Bowie’s Young Americans seeped into my skin when I was a teenager? Am I a better writer because Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird fed my inner Scout Finch in grade school? God, I hope so.
The passing of Harper Lee reminds me of where I began, how I was formed. It is a marker of sorts. When I heard the news, I paused, gave one heavy sigh, more from resignation than grief. Another hero gone—I must be getting old.
Then, I had a moment of panic for other literary, cinematic, or rock and roll heroes— what about Annie Dillard or Ursula Le Guin, Maggie Smith, Dick Van Dyke, Paul McCartney, Tina Turner? How are they holding up? Who’s next? I mentally gathered myself, taking stock, doing Internet searches.
Why does it matter?
The truth is that most likely my life will go on with little interruption, save for a moment of silence for the ten-year-old girl who curled up in the chair by the window to read To Kill a Mockingbird, lo those many years ago.
But death has this stopping and gathering effect. It encourages us to look inside our loss to understand what is now, suddenly, absent. Celebrity deaths, whether literary figures or movie stars, seem to strike at the collective soul, our persistent shared mortality.
These deaths hammer at the root systems of my history—but do celebrity losses, far removed from my real and ordinary days have any true effect on how I move forward? I’ll go on with my life. Tomorrow I may not even remember that the world has lost yet another great talent.
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
These past few months I have mourned the loss of a couple of writers I did not know well at all, at least personally. I gained a sort of “friendship by association” with both Brett Foster and Chris Bittler through a group of like-minded writer pals I met at workshops, and on social media.
They, too, were heroes. I admired their work. I admired their humor and vitality. I admired the care with which both seemed to construct meaning in their lives, in sickness and in health, relationship and art.
Am I a better person for having known these men for such a short time? Am I a better artist for being introduced to their work, even now? God, I hope so.
Brett and Chris spring to my mind today as I ponder the death of Harper Lee because they are the closest death has come to touching my day-to-day life in recent months.
I can see the effect of the absence on my friends. Their grief is fully present, fully realized. The space left in their hearts for these two men is real and tangible. The tears come fast and strong. They will be missed. I can see it in their eyes.
It is in these deaths that I feel the pull of this mortal coil. We are not without our fragility. We are never too far from the hand of death. These men were young—swimming in the same age range I am entering now. These nearer deaths offer me an opportunity to stop a moment, foot on the brake, hands placed squarely at ten and two, like the driving instructor used to tell me was the best position on the steering wheel. What am I doing here and now? Time’s a wasting.
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
In the Orthodox tradition, we say, “Memory Eternal” instead of “Rest in Peace.” At first, I thought that this sentiment was about keeping the memory of the deceased alive here on earth. I imagined that it was a kind of immortalizing of the person, the work, the feelings we had for them. But in reality, the idea dwells on a deeper level.
We petition to God to remember our loved ones, to enfold them into Himself, like the thief on the cross, asking Jesus to remember him in the kingdom.
The question of death, then, takes on a different look—how will I spend these short waking years? None of us are outside of Death’s reach and the waking years are short. How will we spend our lives and who will walk alongside? Who will wish for our memory to be eternal when all is said and done?
When this life is over—all the struggles and the illness and the aging and the posturing for votes or popularity or even long-loved literary works—we hope for remembrance.
It is this kind of remembrance, this deep and lasting remembrance that endures. If death gives us pause—then, yes, good, so be it. Let it give us a moment to gather ourselves, to look deep into the crushing loss and wrap it in a wide embrace before the move forward, back to life. We can be heroes.
I start over, trying different tricks, until I can prop each bloom in a semi-erect position. How ridiculous. I know it will be useless. I am perfectly conscious of setting up a sad masquerade. What is this pathetic comedy for? My own sake, I guess. These sunflowers are in agony, maybe already dead, but I have to pretend I’m doing the impossible to rescue them. I’m doing it, no matter the cost.
That day we explored this passage in Brothers Karamazov, I saw in my professor a humbling acknowledgment—that there are things which belief fails to fully reconcile. That something like suffering and the weight we feel because of it seem, at times, incompatible with the love and reconciliation we so desperately seek in our horizontal and vertical lives.
The radar confirms what I sense. An amorphous green mass, outlined with yellow and red, tilts from the well of Texas to the roof of Michigan. I wait for it—the sky like a pressure cooker, eager and dangerous with its current of heat and force.