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Death changes us.

Updated on January 31, 2012

In High School we were required to memorize a section of Meditation 17 by John Donne. It had no meaning to me then although I had lost a grandfather and a friend so I had experienced already the loss of someone close. Still this poem sounded like nonsense and it was just something we had to learn to get a good grade. I remember how stupid it sounded to say "if a clod be washed away by the sea" and compare that to a person. I had no idea what a promontory was and the phrase "No man is an Island" just seemed like a ridiculous thing to say. But as I have aged, this poem, meditation or whatever it is officially called has grown to have more and more meaning for. At first, it was a writing that seemed a little fitting- I believe I first understood "no man is an island" with the loss of a friend his senior year in High School, I was a junior at the time. In fact we had just had the assignment of learning this "poem" however, the poem didn't speak to me yet, it only just seemed to be appropriate.

The young man that had died was named Todd. He had slid off an icy road and was pinned in his car in a creek - it just so happened the creek was on my property and I had driven by there many times in the days that we were looking for Todd but never had seen the car. We received various reports indicating he died quickly but he was pinned there for 3 days and I vividly imagined that he was cold and suffering the whole time, I certainly hope he was not but I suspect he suffered quite a bit and the reports were to just make us feel better. I thought about how alone he and wondered about how he handled it. Todd was a remarkably optimistic and upbeat person and an extremely hard worker. So hard of a worker and so compettitive that I had first resented him when he started working at the drive-in where I worked because he could out do me at everything. But it wasn't long before he was showing me tips and tricks to do things better to keep up with him. That's what kind of person he was, he was never a solitary person, an island, he was part of the group. You enjoyed being around Todd. We didn't hang out when not at work, Todd worked all the time and had a girlfriend so when he wasn't at school he was with her or at work but he was always smiling. It was a sad time to lose him, many lives were touched by him. But still this was just a poem that seemed to describe well that he was not an island, it was not much more than that until a few years later.

In college I lived in the dorms my freshman year. I was in a dorm with 2 girls to a room and two rooms to a bathroom, so of the 4 of us in the suite, 3 went to the same high school and 4th girl was named Elaine. Elaine was my first exposure to a wealthy person. When I say Wealthy, I mean truly wealthy. Elaine however was very down to earth and honestly didn't want people to know she had money, but the problem was she thought nothing of buying pizza for everyone or spending money on others so it was noticeable despite her best efforts to never flaunt it. Soon, it seemed like everyone wanted to be her friend. I remember having long discussions with her in which I harshly shared my opinionated point of view about how she was buying friends even if she didn't meant to and that she let too many people take advantage of her. She would laugh and explain to me that it makes her happy to give etc. and I would say something like letting people mooch isn't giving. Funny thing is she never became resentful of me having this attitude and I really could not understand her generosity. Even if she had nothing, she would have given until it hurt, because she did this with her time, and it doesn't matter how wealthy you are, there are only 24 hours in your day. Our sophomore year, Elaine's mother bought a house for her and let several friends live in it, I couldn't stand the idea of living there for free and neither could the other 2 of our suite mates, but 3 girls on the hall were grateful to move in and did their best to share the bills. (not to mention it would have cost us more to pay the bills and put gas in our cars living that far off campus so i didn't just pass up a "free house") Over Christmas Break Elaine volunteered at a youth recreational shelter, it was a slow day and the other counselors had left, she was all alone. A young man, who freshly aged out of juvenile detention came in while she was there. Elaine was brutally raped and murdered, her naked body was left on the floor of the back room and he drove away in her car. (he is now on death row btw). We were shocked and could not believe this. It was a cold day in early January that made the 2 hour drive to her funeral on icy streets. I had grown up in a small town, but Elaine had attended a high school that had more students than the entire population of the town in which I had lived. Her funeral was held at a large church or school (can't remember). There must have been 2,000 people there. I remember wondering if all of these people knew her. Turns out, Elaine was very active in band, church, school, sports, she volunteered at summer camps and Special Olympic events and so on. Her family was prominent, everyone new her. She had truly touched the lives of most of these people. It was then that I started understanding the impact of just one person, and oddly enough I do remember my other roommate and myself having a discussion about meditation 17 on the long ride home.

At this point the poem/writing started to speak to me. Unfortunately my tales of death do not end there. There have been many other friends that have died, family members and acquaintances. Each death affects us differently, some are a shock, some are expected, we miss the people and sometimes the circumstances of their death are just overwhelming. I managed to go a few years with no deaths to deal with, but then my boss's daughter and grandchildren turned up missing. After 6 days of searching their bodies were discovered in a shallow grave. The daughter's boyfriend had shot her and her young children. I didn't know Cindy at all, I had met the grandchildren only a few times but I had a close friendship with my boss so on this one it was more of witnessing the heartache of a woman that had lost not just a child but her only grandchildren at the time. Again, the poem speaks to me of what I witness but as the years have gone by I find that it now speaks for me.

A few years ago, my mother in law was struggling with colon cancer. Her last few months in the hospital were nearly unbearable. My father in law was devastated and was begging the doctors to assist her in death. Of course they would not, she has to make the request and was unable to do so, and would not have made such a request. Having all he could take of her suffering and having concerns about his own health, he went home from the hospital one morning and took his own life. I watched my husband migrate through the feelings of anger and pain and grief, this was without a doubt the most difficult time in our lives. She passed a full two weeks later, we were simply drained, at the time I started keeping notes of my feelings and I dug up Meditation 17 to read it, I pondered it, it had real true meaning to me. I began to look at older persons who have witnessed so much death and wondered how they handle this. Why is their nature so different, they feel a great loss and they take it harder than we do yet they seem to also handle it better. I've spent more time observing older folks now than I ever did before especially on this topic. It was now that the phrase "every man's death diminished me" began to have real meaning. I was beginning to wonder how I will make to it be an old person if life continues to hand out so many deaths.

In the past few years, I've lost more friends. I ran into friend that I hadn't seen for 22 years at a reunion. We had a great talk, it was wonderful to see her. A month later she, her husband and grandchild were killed in a head on collision. It was strange how her death affected me, I was more confused by my grief than I had ever been before. I cared for her but I couldn't understand why I was taking it so hard, she wasn't a part of my daily life, I wasn't experiencing questions about my own mortality but I found her death to be as if it was my own sister or brother. Meditation 17 again came to mind and I wondered if this is how Donne must have felt. I thought about how we all have an impact on others and wonder what my impact is. Every word of the poem now has meaning. It was beginning to do more than speak to me.

Last night, I received a call. A friend's teenage daughter committed suicide. She's been a troubled teen for sometime and had moved out as soon as she turned 18. She was molested at the age of 4 by her real mother's father and the real mother spent most of her life blaming the child. The step mother exhausted herself trying to save this child and give her a normal life. Then at age 14 she was raped by a 17 year old boy but did not report it for months and no charges were brought. she suffered more things as time went on and I have watched her step mom try to help, she's been hospitalized for depression, treated for eating disorder and drug rehab. It has been a desperate situation for some time. I look at this child and believe that society has failed her, although the dad and step mom fought their best fight. It is then that I think of the words of Donne in Meditation 17 and they now do more than speak to me. The speak for me. So below I am sharing the portion that we had to memorize as it best provides the voice. I now understand the teacher was really trying to convey something, not just test our memorization skills.

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee"

No man is an island- the life changes us as much as their death. Even the lives of people who are simply strangers change us, often in ways we are slow to understand. Celebrate life-it's all we really have to give.


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