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Sunday, December 29, 2013

Holidays and Death

Shortly before Christmas I met for drinks three guys who I had once worked with.  Although I hadn't seen most of them in at least five years, we easily re-established our rapport, and laughter and banter flowed as readily as the beer we drank. 

A somber note arose as the recent death of another co-worker was discussed.  None of us knew his age, but we estimated it as late 50's or early 60's.  As the conversation continued, the others mentioned their ages which ranged from the late 40's to the mid 50's, and as they did I realized that I hadn't known their exact ages until then although I could have guessed each one fairly accurately.  Other names were mentioned of co-workers who had died because even in death they were part of the same bond. One of the guys also mentioned that he had recently lost his mother.

As we parted everyone said they had a good time, and it was suggested that we get together more often.  As I drove home, however, I reflected back and thought there was a certain sadness in the gathering.  This could be a misinterpretation, I realized, because unlike myself the others were still working and were busy, successful people who may have just been understandably tired or weighed down by their responsibilities at work and home.

The event has caused me to muse about the end of year holiday period and death, and it seems like an obvious time for people to think about mortality even though it is out of sorts with the jovial seasonal expectations.  After my brother died one mid-December, someone mentioned that a death so close to Christmas was especially difficult, but it was hard for me to think another time of year would have softened the blow.   For me, anniversaries of deaths are not necessarily significant because grief can hit anytime, sometimes long afterwards.  Yet I do think there's something about the end of year that causes many of us to remember those no longer with us.   After all, the traditional New Years song, "Auld Lang Syne", suggests recalling past times with old acquaintances, and these could be both living and dead.

That evening I reread the James Joyce story "The Dead" from The Dubliners, and I decided Joyce had reason to set the story at Christmastime:

"There are always in gatherings such as this sadder thoughts that will recur to our minds: thoughts of the past, of youth, of changes, of absent faces that we miss here to-night. Our path through life is strewn with many such sad memories: and were we to brood upon them always we could not find the heart to go on bravely with our work among the living. We have all of us living duties and living affections which claim, and rightly claim, our strenuous endeavours."

However, just a few hours after the main character speaks these words, he discovers that a song has rekindled a memory of a lost love for his wife which she cannot escape brooding upon.  As he gazes out the hotel window at the falling snow, he ponders not just the death many years before of this young man but of all of the dead both before and after.

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