Hopefully this isn’t a harbinger of things to come, not just yet anyway since we all know there is no way to ultimately prevent it, but death has been on my mind lately.

No, no. Not to worry. I’m not depressed or anything like that but two things this past week got me to thinking about dying and death, leading me to wonder what the fear is like when you know that the end – your end, your demise – is imminent, likely, certain – and knowing that you are helpless to prevent it. On a somewhat different plane, I have recently questioned too, what it is that goes through a person’s mind in a situation, where it is, sadly, what one seeks by one’s own hand, to bring about one’s own death.

First, the latter.

Amidst the beauty of the Rocky Mountains last week, as my husband and I were finishing a long hike, we encountered two park rangers and red tape strung between two trees to prevent us from taking that section of the trail. We were told there had been an accident at the falls. They wouldn’t provide us with any details but we later learned that someone had died there, presumably from having fallen off the steep cliffs towering over the river below. A friend who lives in Colorado told me a few days later that it had been a suicide, a 33-year-old male.

No one can ever know what another person’s motivation is whether it’s in regard to their career choices, their deeds (good or bad), their relationship choices (again, good or bad) and certainly not in regard to the state of such desperation as to drive them to end their own life. But it’s always tragic because whatever is currently causing so much hurt and so much pain may not always be so. I’m always a little annoyed when people claim that God ‘never gives us more than we can handle’. I beg to differ. I think not everyone is equipped to deal with the hardships foisted upon their lives whether due to nature or nurture (or more likely lack thereof) or caused by some evil act or simply as the result of the randomness of the universe. To proclaim such a thing, then, I think is to imply a weakness or a failing of the individual which I liken to adding insult to injury. Some things just ARE more than some people can – or should be able to – handle. It’s easy to come up with examples of individuals who have beaten the odds and won out over adversity, who despite a truly lousy set of circumstances, were able to persevere, to continue on, to be happy and enjoy their lives.

Not everyone, however, is so equipped to deal with hardships, for whatever reason. How enormously difficult must it be to deal with the violent loss of one’s childhood or innocence? How are we to suppose someone deals with physical disfigurations and bodily grotesqueries that severely impede their ability to meld into the social fabric of everyday life, having to endure taunts as children or the never-ending stares of strangers? To never know the stirrings of self-confidence and the ease of navigating the world thanks to a healthy self-image? Who are we to judge?

So while it is heartbreaking to learn that someone was so lost, so unhappy, so miserable with their lot in life that he or she would choose to end it, we cannot ever know, truly, the pain and despair that was so embedded in their being that to die and be no more was preferable to their suffering.

The second trigger to my pondering death and dying was an event that that occurred in 1888. I’m reading about a blizzard of epic proportions that killed hundreds of schoolchildren. On the morning of January 12, the people living in the plains area of the Dakotas, Nebraska and southwestern Minnesota woke up to a beautiful sunny day. Temperatures were milder than they had been in some time and as such, many of the children wore no coats, hats or gloves to school due to the unseasonably mild weather. Later in the day, however, the sky ‘exploded’ with sand-like snow, harsh, driving winds and a cold wave unlike anything the settlers there had ever seen.

In some cases, the teachers kept the children sheltered at school while others decided it best to dismiss school early to allow the students time to walk home. Some survived but many, many – far too many – people died. Their stories of struggling to seek shelter from the cold and the wind and the snow are heart-wrenching. Stories of bravery, loyalty and sacrifice, stories filled with parents’ decisions to not send their children to school that day, teachers’ decisions to stay in their classrooms, decisions to brave the elements, chance decisions to head in one direction and not the other: the chronicle of this staggeringly savage meteorological event is a tapestry of ‘if only this’ and ‘if not that’ which is harrowing to contemplate.

To find oneself caught in the open plains during a raging snowstorm, where you cannot see your hand in front of your face or to be unable to hear the shouts of your companions due the fierce howling winds, where the cold is literally sucking the life out of you, your body covered only with the thin fabric of what you’d worn to school that day and not having a coat or jacket to wrap around your body, or a scarf to protect your throat or gloves to cover your hands and fingers or a hat to keep what little heat remains within you from exiting your body through your head, is simply more than I can imagine. The horror of it, the reality of what this exposure to the elements would ultimate exact – one’s LIFE – may not have been on the minds of the youngest children but certainly the adults and the older students had to know they were not long for this earth.

I’m not known for having a high tolerance for pain. Nor do I easily bear being cold. It is, therefore, difficult for me to envision myself lost and alone, cold, so bitterly cold and unable to see or hear or feel anything except the blinding white, frigid, shrieking chaos all around me, frightened beyond anything I’d ever before experienced and knowing that the likelihood of survival or rescue or ever feeling warm and cozy and safe again was a reality of brutally false proportions. The terror and agony of what these people had to face is inconceivable.

How and when and where death makes itself known to us is impossible to say. May it, when death comes, be swift and painless, best perhaps, while we sleep. A mystery for the ages, contemplated throughout the course of history, unknown to all. I have no wisdom to impart. I only know now that these events, a chance encounter on a wilderness trail and picking up a book whose jacket cover caught my eye, has lead me to think of death in ways I had not before and for that, strangely enough, I am grateful. For I have been made urgently more aware of how beautiful and satisfying and comforting my own life is so I’d best enjoy it while I still can.

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During the last several weeks and months, in just my own small world alone, there have been a number of untimely deaths. The startling news of each passing is always totally unexpected. All of them individuals in their 50s and 60s with retirement and travel and grandkids and exciting new adventures either already underway or on the not too distant horizon. Hopes and dreams shattered, the very existence of loved ones reeling with loss put on hold.

Whenever lives are cut short as a result of health-related problems it always gives me pause. There is, of course, the heaviness of tragedy – the hardships, grieving and loss to be endured by those left behind but also the reminder for all of us of our own frailties and vulnerabilities, our very mortality.

Fittingly – with the sad, stunning demise of Robin Williams still all too fresh in our minds – the battle cry of ‘Carpe Diem!’ which his character encouraged his students to embrace in the 1989 film Dead Poets Society is one we should carry in our hearts if not on our tongues as well. We should strive to live and love with abandon with an eye toward keeping ourselves healthy in the process. With the memory of these recent deaths I’ve become more cognizant than ever that I want to remain healthy. I want to live a long, happy, productive life with my husband. I want to travel and enjoy leisurely sunsets. I want to climb mountains, linger along the water’s edge, hike in the woods, fly kites, drink good wine with friends and family, groove and sway to the blues, kayak, go camping, play board games and go golfing with my life partner. I want to see my son married someday and perhaps start a family.  I want to cook and bake and snap photos and write and read and laugh and love!  I want to create memories of special holidays and milestones with friends and family.  But mostly I just want to cherish the everyday joys of life.

Life-sustaining, life-enhancing diet and exercise, mood and attitude and life-affirming, nurturing relationships should be our highest priority. Somehow knowing and acknowledging the payoff of caring for self through a positive lifestyle makes the goal of good health appear easier to attain, doable.

The alternative is simply, utterly unthinkable. Seize the Day! It truly is all we have right here, right now. Make it happen.