Seeing Death on the N Train

I saw a man this past Saturday as I was heading into the city to see a production of Pig Farm and he was dying. Not right then, but death had imprinted itself so heavily on him that it was coming soon. I think he had AIDS – his frame was gaunt, arms covered in purple bruises. His face seemed to be collapsing in on itself, one eye kept rolling down to reveal only white. He had birds tattoed on his arms. Red birds caught in flight. I could feel compassion and sadness well up within me, matched by a deep and instinctual fear, a biological imperative to disavow what I was seeing. His gaze was distant, like he was seeing something that I couldn’t–and don’t want to–understand. I realized that I have been lucky in my life, as this was the closest I have come in thirty-six years to a dying person.

When I was a toddler, my great-grandfather died–we called him Nampa–and my parents decided I was too young to attend the funeral. According to family lore, I was angry for weeks after that my parents hadn’t let me go. I don’t really remember any of this, but I still own one my Nampa’s hats and I means something to me that I have it, something inchoate and forgotten, but there nonetheless.

Then there was his wife, my Nana, who lived for a long time after her husband died and who was in a hospital for the last few years of her life, but the last time I saw here was months from her death and she was so tired and hungry for peace that it didn’t strike like this.

Also, my grandparents from my Dad’s side of the family have died, as well as my uncle Rick. I really didn’t know them though, and my sadness and loss was more for my father’s sake than my own.

The only other experience I have had personally was Mari Killilea who died in a car crash my senior year of high school. I remember hearing the news and the stunned disorientation that followed. We weren’t close, but we worked on our high school literary magazine together and I hung out a bit with her older brother. Mari was one of those people who radiated gentleness and compassion and kindness. The sharp reminder of mortality and the world was–is–poorer for her loss.

Recently, a young man who I knew as a boy died from a drug overdose. His parents are very close to my family, his father having been friends with my dad since they were teens. I hadn’t seen J. since he was 7. I remember one night, we were looking up at the stars and he asked me if I thought there were people out there. I said I did. Another time, I read a childrens story to him and his sister. I never saw him haunted and hunted by drugs. For me, he will always be a seven year old boy, a bit afraid of the world, but sweet and kind.

Seeing this man on the N train reminded me of just how lucky I have been in my life and how few losses I have had to bear. There is no real moral to this story. No true insights into the nature of life and death. Simply an encounter, a foreshadowing.

On this day..

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