No doubt it’s the mark of getting older, but hardly a week goes by when a death — of someone I know or someone I know of — doesn’t hit me in the gut. When I was younger and someone my age died (and it did happen, albeit not so often), I would dismiss it as a fluke (a rare disease) or a result of dangerous choices or the wages of war. But as you get older, the fluke excuse disappears, and asking over and over whether the person smoked or had regular colonoscopies (in other words, whether there was something that makes them different from you, that makes you safe) often doesn’t work and in any event misses the point.
Two deaths hit me in the gut recently. Earlier this month, my friend Diane’s sister, Wendy Wayne, died after a four-year “battle” (such a strange word for what is not a fair fight) with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I knew her mostly as Diane’s sister, a woman who, like the rest of that family, was smart, committed, a great mother and also some kind of a big deal in the Bakersfield community. When I heard that she had passed and typed her name into Google, it became clear just what an important figure she was in that community, known (behind her back because she was the exact opposite of a self-promoter) as the Mother Teresa of Bakersfield.
In a graduation speech she gave last year, she told the students: “When I was 20, I decided to leave my comfortable home in L.A. and my five siblings and travel halfway across the world to Africa to be a Peace Corps volunteer. Now, mind you, I’d never even been camping.” She never let that kind of problem stop her. She was a nurse practitioner, a public health nurse, a childbirth educator, a credentialed community college teacher, Kern County planning commissioner and the chief administrator at two local nonprofit organizations dedicated to the health and well-being of children. After she “retired” in 2004, she went to Louisiana to volunteer after Hurricane Katrina, returned to Kenya where she had taught three decades earlier, and the next year went to Nigeria and India to administer vaccinations to children. She was a wife, a mother of two, a grandmother and, yes, a wonderful sister.
I never knew Robert Rainey, who died on May 31. His brother, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, interviewed me a few times. I vaguely remember people recommending him as a skilled chiropractor when I was having back problems, but I never went. Then I read in the paper that he had been found bludgeoned to death on the floor of his office — not far from where I live.
Rainey was an adventurer. He traveled the world climbing mountains, which terrifies me just thinking about it. His “pastime” was extreme endurance running. A 33-mile canyon run was what he had planned to do just a few days after his death. The newspaper stories all describe him as a “gentle man” with a “kind heart” who took care of patients who couldn’t afford to pay and found odd jobs for the homeless people who lived near his office. When his father died just short of his 97th birthday, he told friends he was aiming to live longer, to 100 or even 110. He died at 54.
Knowing, reading, hearing about these gentle giants who lived so well and died so young must teach us a lesson, if only we can divine it. Wendy died at home; it was expected. Robert died at his office, entirely unexpected and as yet unsolved. They both traveled the world and died in safe places. They both, it seems clear, loved life and were beloved.
I have long since stopped asking why so many good people die young and so many not so good people live long lives. I have stopped asking why. Now I look for lessons in lives well lived, and of course, that is, itself, the lesson. Live well. Follow your dreams. Make of your life a blessing — and not because there are any guarantees, but because there aren’t.
— Best-selling author Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her.