It begins insidiously, first appearing to be an anomaly then morphing into a trend.  A few years ago  – check that, it was seven years ago, though it seems so much more recent – my dear friend Steve died due to the negligence of the hospital treating him.  He was 63 and I spoke to him the night before he passed.  The next morning his newly minted widow was on the phone breaking the news to me.  At the time of Steve’s passing I was ten years younger than him, nearly to the day.  Our mutual friend David already suffering from myriad ailments had been or was about to be diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.  David would live nearly another seven years, passing away at the age of 55, leaving a wife and two sons among other bereaved friends and relatives.

On reflection, I went through stages like that.  When I lived in the Washington DC area during the Reagan years I lost two dear friends to cancer.  Nasty way to go.  Though older than me, both were young, both had wives and children and both were savaged and ravaged by the disease.

A few years later my cousin Ronni (who was more like a sister than a cousin) was diagnosed with cancer and after what seems like numerous treatments and remissions the disease got her with a vengeance.  She died at 53. Her mother, my beloved Aunt Edie, was the same age when cancer got her. Nasty way to go.  Before Ronni, my cousin April in California was also taken by a variation on the theme.  She was the youngest still.

Some time four days ago, my cousin Harold – age 55 – went to sleep and never woke up.  It was unexpected.  He wasn’t sick with any catastrophic illness like Parkinson’s or cancer…he had no reason to place his life in the hands of incompetent hospital workers…he just passed away, alone in bed.  Did he have some realization as to what was happening to him or did he just slip from one state to another seamlessly?  I suspect we will never know.  I’d like to think he was spared that final “holy shit!” moment, for all the good it would do.  Harold was my cousin and my friend and his passing snuck up on me – on everyone – with the stealth of …of what?  Nothing can be as surprising, as random and out of the blue as unexpected death.  It is the ultimate misdirection:

”Pssst…over here…watch the old people…watch the sick people…Gotcha! “

It’s the very definition of stealth.

Tomorrow is promised to no one,” goes the cliché.  Neither tomorrow, nor later today…not even the next minute.  In the end, none of us finish out the day.

My mother is nearing 92.  My father fell short of 92 years by 21 days.  She is the last one standing – albeit with the help of a walker – of her generation of family and friends.  The peers she grew up with and old with are pretty much all gone.  Friends, and loved ones have gone and she remains, occasionally taking inventory of her memories…double checking who still shares this mortal plane with her.  The roll call is mostly silent and she will tap her forehead sadly and say, “How could I not remember…”

Still, with the exception of an episode spurred by a dream about the whereabouts of my father –her mate for some 70 years – and the disbelief that he was gone, there has been no Groundhog Day revelation; no repeat of the initial shock and trauma of the actual event.  I’m thankful for that because my awareness of that loss is constant.

I used to subscribe to “the theory of the laughing Gods.”  Basically it states that when you finally have it good, particularly after years of trials and false starts, when optimism finally and truly takes hold, something intercedes and takes it all away.  I figured that when something good finally happens to me it will be gone before it can be savored.

When Harold passed a few days ago, it occurred to me that I may be heir to the curse that my mother is now living.  Don’t misunderstand…I don’t wish her gone.  I am grateful to still be able to talk to her, hold her hand, see her smile and give her a kiss…but I can’t help but think in those moments when she is alone with her thoughts, whether she really wanted to be the last of her generation.

I surely do not want to inherit that role.  Increasingly I think that all that the future holds for me is garbage and that longevity only curses me with a hefty span of years filled with the same.  I have no children to rescue from their own miscues as my father did for me; no grandchildren, real or potential, to dote on or bitch about when they don’t visit or send thank you notes for gifts.

Mind you, I’m not complaining about the lack of heirs. Just saying.

But I don’t want to be the timekeeper or time chronicler either, noting each successive passing and placing it into some familial or social context, or calling the roll in my head and hearing only silence.

There’s an old toast – I think it’s Irish but even if it’s not it probably sounds better spoken with a brogue – that proclaims: “May you live forever and may the last voice you hear be mine.”

Thanks…but no thanks.

Is it unseemly to show contempt for longevity in the immediate aftermath of the untimely passing of a dear and valued friend and relative?

Probably so.

Will it change my feeling?


Provoked by the passing of Harold Richland

A.K.A. Calvin B. Streets

“The Brooklyn Blues Man”

November 6, 1957 – January 12, 2014


About Rich Altman

A writer and marketing communications professional for more than four decades, "Apropos of..." is Rich Altman's first foray into the world of personal bloggery. View all posts by Rich Altman

2 responses to “Mortality

  • Deborah Gaines

    This is great writing. Keep blogging my friend.

  • Tara Wilkinson

    Thank you for opening your heart and sharing what many of us feel when we lose friends much too soon, and are left holding the hands of the elderly and wondering what the hell to do. All I know is life is a precious gift … and we’ve been blessed with a friendship that makes the journey sweeter. Love you, friend. Tara 🙂

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