*”So, what happened?”
The usually collected Andy sounded a tad anxious, and not simply because he was calling from L.A.’s treacherous 405 freeway, which, he said, by late afternoon was already a parking lot. Andy’s angst was for details.
Earlier in the day, word had spread that a friend of ours had passed suddenly. The email forwarded among our circle didn’t say much more than a seemingly healthy 47 year-old Tim had died unexpectedly at home in Boulder, Colorado. He and Michelle had moved there ten years ago, after selling their shares in a Los Angeles restaurant where Tim was chef.
Andy already knew all that. Like the rest of us, he thought it a crying shame that, just like that, Tim was gone. We were stunned and saddened.
But Andy, in his grief and selfish disconsolation, was impatient to know the same thing two other buddies of ours who’d phoned me earlier wanted to know: HOW did Tim pass?
Call it a stubborn, penitent nod to impermanence or plain, ol’ stark fear, but when we who have reached a certain age hear about other people departing around a certain age–okay, around OUR age–we tend to want to know how those people went.
We want to know in hopes that the information will somehow offer an indicator as to where we stand in the menacing shadow of mortality. Had he been sick? Did she have a history of that? Driven by a foreboding and curiosity rivaling superstition, we forage for any details that will allow us to take ourselves out of detiny’s equation. On Andy’s shoulders rested the added weight that he and Tim were both 47. No one wants to have age in common with a dead man.
I told Andy I didn’t have any specifics on Tim’s situation. Silence. “Well, you know,” he began, ramping up any theory that might separate him and our friend’s circumstance, “Timmy been kinda sickly ever since that snakebite at Yosemite a couple years ago. Remember?” Please remember. Cosign this. “After Yosemite, anytime I talked to him he was getting over something. I think that bite had something to do with this….”
Maybe. Maybe not. But among my buddies, complications from a snake bite–or being dragged off his driveway one morning by wild dogs; sucked inside a flying saucer or kidnapped by the Russian Mafia, ANYTHING unlikely to happen to most of us–beats the hell out of hearing that Tim suffered a stroke, succumbed to the Big C or any garden variety dread that could happen to just anybody. Namely one of us.
It’s what happens when you grow up: you have friends who pass away. Sometimes, they’re not old and appear just fine. Sometimes, they’re your age. That’s when it feels weird. It is an emotion that requires specialized reconciliation.
My friends and I don’t wish anyone ill. But if we get news that someone in our age group is suddenly gone, inside the second(s) before we hear HOW they went, there is absolutely no harm in imagining the cause of death was from trying to cohabit with bears. Or while cooking up a batch of exploding meth or while trying to do tricks on a skateboard or any other reckless, stupid shit I’m not going to be caught dead doing.
We’re not paranoid. Most of my contemporaries have discovered that middle age–a surreal state that as late as our 30s sounded ancient to us–is pretty cool. By your 40s, it’s clear: you’re officially an adult. You’re going to stay an adult, there is no going back.
Turns out, the subsequent adventure–the lessons, revelations and epiphanies–are eye-opening, enriching, sanctifying. Middle age just might be the most wonderful part of human life.
However, middle age is also undeniably the portal to “old.” And we know what comes after that. But while the ever exalted “natural causes” sounds like the appropriate way to leave this dimension, we don’t want it happening sooner than what we deem, well, natural.
The older we get, the older the “only”s get, as in, “…And to think, she was only 68.” By your 40s and 50s, you have a firm grip on how fast time flies; you know that 68 is nowhere away.
Thus, instinctually, a certain age brings on a quiet, peculiar sentry. You keep an eye on how other middle aged people go.
Among my group, word of someone’s sudden demise can launch a stampede of hastily scheduled doctor exams. Causes of death are rationalized: Please, God, let him have been taken by crack and not Haagen-Dazs.
To my posse, the worst passings aren’t made of plane crashes or drive bys (you can wear a parachute and return fire, respectively), but those that happen in the wake of doing things designed to keep us alive: “…They said dude came in from a workout at the gym and just dropped….”
Of course, the enduring notion is that we should be so busy carving out for ourselves such a healthy and fabulous existence–everyday squeezing the absolute nectar from this life–that we don’t have to time to fret about its end.
Try telling that to Andy. After spending his evening making calls and emails, he learned that Tim hadn’t met his fate at the end of a lightning bolt or by choking on a sandwich while eating in bed. Tim gypped us all: according to Michelle, he went peacefully in his sleep.
“In his sleep,” Andy repeated almost to himself in a lilt that said annoyed. I understood his frustration. With no definitive cause of death on which to hang our perturbation, exactly what are we to live in fear of?
Andy didn’t take any chances. The week Tim passed, he gave up pot and got a colonoscopy. And, just to be safe, he canceled his membership at the gym.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected]