I received word on Wednesday, January 21, that a 44 year old, outstanding, visionary surgeon in Boston was shot and killed by a deranged man who was upset by his mother’s death. As you might guess, he then turned the gun on himself. I thought immediately of the surgeon’s wife, pregnant with their fourth child and thier three young children, his parents and hers, and how that family’s life was changed dramatically by a despicable act of emotional anger and turmoil. The shooter’s family was affected as well. I was reminded of all the senseless shootings of the past few years that have altered the lives of so many affected by those tragedies. Life is fragile, precious, unpredictable and vulnerable. Life can change 180 degrees instantly or as with many of us, gradually, over time
Most of us probably do not consciously think about our life being in danger except perhaps when we are or have been in a situation that is at a higher level of risk than whatever we consider normal and ordinary. One has to wonder at times if the new normal in a world of wackos is, in fact, more dangerous than it used to be or is it merely my imagination exploded by constant news? There are also other life-threatening events that intrude into ordinary, daily life. You have either had such an event in your own life or you know someone who has had such an experience.
Murders accounted for 14,000 deaths in the United States in 2013; over 40,000 suicides in the U.S. in 2011. Automobile related deaths accounted for over 33,000 deaths in 2012. The number of service men and women who have been killed in Iraq and Afganistan is over 7,000. Add to those totals the hundreds of thousands due to heart disease, cancer, COPD and stroke and you get an idea of how many people are affected by sudden death each year.
Death becomes one more fact of life and it comes whether or not we are prepared for it. Blessed are those of us who have the opportunity to make the most of our lives and celebrate our days and years over whatever time we have whether a few days or months or several years. Those who can take an active role in how they wish to die, and even in some cases, when, may be among the more fortunate. (See Atul Gawande’s latest book: Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End.)
The conversation over coffee this morning included a question about history and IF, when there was no news there were just as many sudden deaths, or even more, due to wars, disease and a shorter-life expectancy. Someone, somewhere has probably researched that question and I will leave it for now. Since the world’s population is significantly greater, the statistics would count sudden deaths per 100,000 or some comparative, relevant number.
The following story “Appointment in Samarra” as re-told by W. Somerset Maugham in 1933, is an interesting commentary on how some might think they can escape death, even if for awhile. Death is the speaker.
“There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”