My sister Allison’s friend and sometime tennis doubles partner, Elena Cadet, was killed this weekend in a car accident. She was 18, a freshman at UC Riverside. I never met Elena, but I hear she was incredibly sweet and sunny, a tennis player admired both for athleticism and attitude. Over the past few days her Facebook Wall has swelled with tributes and loving messages from her many friends, a touching cyber-version of the impromptu outpourings of notes, flowers, and mementos that usually adorn more physical memorial sites (and I’m sure all these now decorate that palm tree near Riverside).
In spite of my not knowing Elena, her death has affected me in ways I’m not quite able to articulate. It’s been a week of food and socializing; we’ve been staying with friends and family, and have been driving around and eating in restaurants and petting cats and taking walks in the sunshine. It’s all been very pleasant and ordinary. But every now and then, since I heard about Elena, I have been getting these flashes of — I don’t know what; they come and go so quickly I cannot even put a name to the emotion. I’ll be doing something totally normal and then for an instant I’ll feel like I’m falling into a void, like there’s nothing to hold on to, like I blinked and the world transformed around me into something I didn’t recognize. And really, it kind of has. The simple psychological explanation is that I forgot that I live in a world where sweet, beloved 18-year-olds of my family’s acquaintance can be killed for no reason… and now I remember.
Another, more complicated, layer of this explanation is that the death of others always reminds me of my own mortality. Hearing about Elena, Al’s friend, made me think that it could so easily have been one of my sisters, my best friends, or me… could still be me. My own life or that of any of my loved ones could — at any moment — likewise come to a screeching halt some dark chilly night. We never know when it might happen, but we all know that someday it will. We’re all born to die. Sometimes this thought reassures me, by teaching me to accept the inevitable. Sometimes it galvanizes me to do as much as I can in the time I do have: “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” etc. And sometimes it’s just too damn big and too terrifying to think about, both in the general sense and in the individual — which is I think why I have only been able to process Elena’s death in fits and starts, in these flashes of nothing and my subsequent meditations.
I have noticed in the past year that I feel things more deeply, now that I have begun these two practices: compassion and art. They go together; both teach me to remain open at all times, to be ready to receive whatever emotions and ideas come my way. So I’m a lot more creative and thoughtful these days, but the dark side is that I also cry a lot more easily, and feel more moved by more things.
These inexplicable flashes I’ve been having these past few days… I think they are some mixture of fear and panic and sorrow. The closest I can come to describing them is this: it’s as if, watching a friend open a refrigerator and take out some food, I have a half-second vision of everything around me in advanced stages of death and decay. The walls are crumbling, moldering; clothes and linens are disintegrating and flapping in the wind; the food is rotting; the people are all skeletons. I don’t actually *have* these visions, but I’m left as chilled and terrified as if this were what I saw. The flashes seem to say: “This is all a facade. You think this is normal, but it’s not. What’s normal is senseless death. The world you know is all a fake; it’s all nothing, and death is the only real thing.”
What keeps these flashes at bay is the understanding I’ve come to from my compassion and creativity practices: that the truth is both sides of the coin. Bland, quotidian, senseless life and frightening, unknowable, senseless death are both the norm. Living in wealth and security as we do, we’re usually shielded from this, but this is the fact of life. It’s not that life is any more meaningful than death; it’s just that we like it so much better. In the grand is-ness of our existence, Elena’s death makes just as much sense as my life; my comfortable, joy-filled being is just as random as her sudden absence… at least for those of us who have no afterlife concept to turn to when death enters our view. I don’t know; this all sounds so terribly grim, yet I find it somehow comforting. I guess it reminds me how precious life is, and ultimately, if this life is all we get, this knowledge is the only meaning there is in anything.
Our lives are immeasurably precious. If this is it, and it may be withdrawn at any time, then what we have now has value beyond words, beyond emotion, beyond anything we’re capable of even comprehending.
My love goes out to all Elena’s family and friends, and to her too, wherever or whatever she may now be. May the love she embodied in this world go on loving.