By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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The past year has not been easy for our family and our neighborhood. In September, my wife’s cousin and close friend was found dead on her living room sofa. A month later, another close friend suffered a heart attack and died on the way to the hospital. A month after that, in the early morning of the Sunday before Thanksgiving, our next-door neighbor died of cancer. None of these was a timely death, if there is such a thing: all three were in their mid-forties, in the middle of careers, marriage, and parenthood. Three good people died in the middle of their lives and through no fault of their own, and I find myself asking why they died, and discovering that the answers that used to comfort me are suddenly out of date.
Kay, my wife’s cousin, died of acute chronic depression, an inherited condition made worse by a marriage that turned bad. Like many who suffer such depression, she had learned to conceal her illness from people outside her immediate family; she appeared to be a cheerful and lively woman who was often inattentive. I thought her a bit scatterbrained until I learned through the family grapevine of the desperate interior battles that distracted and finally consumed her. In the two years before her death, she started taking an antidepressant drug, separated herself from an abusive husband, and went back to work. She seemed to be heading for the kind of happy ending that success stories have led us to expect, even to require; and then she was found dead. Whether she hastened her own end is not clear, but it doesn’t really matter, suicide being an occasional fatal complication of depression, as pneumonia is of influenza. What matters is that the recovery that so reassured us, that seemed to give some point to her suffering, was suddenly no recovery at all, and there was suddenly no point at all, and we were not reassured.
My friend Jim was having the kind of academic career that I might have had if I’d finished graduate school before the bottom fell out of the college teaching market. He worked faster than I did, and finished in time to get one of the last tenure-track teaching jobs in the area. It was a job somewhat beneath his gifts as a scholar, but he made the most of it, and I followed with interest his promotions, his publications (including a book), his development of new courses, and his grants to teach abroad.
At the time of his death, he was teaching at a university in Europe. His letters were full of enthusiasm about the people and the countryside and the work he was doing. There were no premonitions of imminent death in any of his letters or, for that matter, in anything he ever did or said: he was too cheerful and too interested in what was happening in his life to talk about death. Besides, he was relatively young and in good condition, a non-smoker who followed a proper diet. He had as little reason to contemplate our inevitable end as I did. Death was something that would happen when our careers were over, our books written, our grants spent; something that would come after a long retirement full of the travel and the writing we never had time to do when we were working; something that would come when our grandchildren were well-launched in life; something that would come at the end of a long life.
Then, on an ordinary weekday in the third month of his European residence, he felt ill at lunch. An hour later he was dead. The autopsy showed that the cause was a coronary occlusion, an anomalous blood clot in an otherwise healthy body. His death was as much an accident as if he had been struck down by a drunk driver, or slipped and fallen in the shower — except that there was no negligence involved. It was just one of those things. Yet all his important projects would never be finished, and my own work, which was so much like his, would never be the same.
My neighbor’s death was the cruelest of all, if cruelty may be attributed to the world, or fate, or “the way things happen.” At the time John’s cancer began to make its presence known, his wife was in the fifth year of her own cancer’s remission. She had recently become strong enough to take a half-time job, and the family was beginning to resume normal routines.
John told me of these improvements in his life as we rested in the middle of a bike ride. We had stopped because his back ached; it had become a chronic complaint, a symptom, we decided, of advancing age and racing handlebars. At the rate we were going, I said, in five years we’d both be cruising the parkways on tricycles. He agreed, and we got on our bikes and finished our ride.
In the course of the following months, John’s bad back became so painful that he finally went to a specialist, who discovered an inoperable malignancy next to his spine. His bike-riding days were over, so he and I went for walks during the intervals of his chemotherapy, sometimes going no farther than around the block.
At the beginning of each walk, he would give me a brief report on his condition, and then we would talk about whatever was on our minds: books, baseball, teaching and writing, the raising of children, the doings of our neighbors. We agreed about most things but not about everything, and as we got to know one another better we grew less reluctant to express our disagreements; yet they were good-humored disputes that never produced any bad feelings (or any conversions either). Often he would pause before taking me up on something I’d said, distracted by pain or weariness or a wave of nausea, and sometimes I would wait with my rebuttal while he vomited into the gutter; then we would move on, and he would resume the conversation where he had left off, and, insofar as his disease permitted, he would be his old self, interesting and interested and amiably contentious.
He remained himself under conditions that would have totally daunted me, and I came to believe that this terrible wrong, this unjust double visitation, might not be quite so bad if it were giving a strong spirit the chance to grow stronger, even to triumph; but John grew steadily weaker. The chemotherapy did more harm than good and was discontinued. Our walks were shorter and more silent. One day he was too sick to leave the house, and after that there were no more walks.
He was more and more distracted when I talked to him, and finally he was overwhelmed. The last time I saw him, a few days before he died, he knew me when I came into the room, and then he drifted off, falling asleep in his chair. He was holding a glass of milk, and I took it out of his hand before he could spill it, and put it on an end table. He woke up, looked annoyed, took the glass back, and then drifted off again, dribbling milk on his shirt. I took the glass from his hand and set it out of reach. That proved to be our final disagreement. At the end of the week, he was gone.
After John’s funeral, I sat in the middle of my house, in the midst of my possessions, in what I had imagined was the middle of my life, listening to the beating of my heart. It was no longer useful to tell myself that we lived in a fallen world, where bad things sometimes happened to good people and the wicked sometimes prospered; or that we had free will and sometimes made the wrong choices; or that God had some hidden purpose in ending these lives in an untimely way, a purpose which would be revealed to me after my own death; or that God had no responsibility for these deaths, but suffered with the dying and grieved with the bereaved. Some or all of these statements might have been true, but they did not change or ease or even express my feelings. They seemed, in fact, to have nothing to do with what had happened. The only words that made sense to me were ones I had first heard as a child, and heard so many times in subsequent years that they had lost their meaning. All flesh is grass. This too shall pass away. In the midst of life we are in death. Man that is born of woman lives but a little while, and is full of troubles. Thou fool, this night shall thy soul be required of thee. Now that three of my friends had died in as many months, these words were suddenly full of meaning. They were about my friends and their lives and deaths; they were about me.
In the year that has passed since the first of these deaths, my philosophies have regained none of their old power to comfort and explain. The terrible truths have lost none of their power either — though the shock is gone — and my world will never be quite the same. Every meal with my family, every walk with my wife, every chance to untangle a paragraph or talk to a child or search for galaxies on a clear night — all have a sharper edge than before, a subtle urgency, an air of passing away that makes me want to take all the chances that come along, and keep my eyes and ears wide open and my mouth more often closed, so that I miss nothing. I have less time to waste on anger, or on the endless enterprises of being vindicated and being understood. I had put off getting to know John, a new neighbor and obviously compatible fellow, because I had many things to do, and plenty of time to get to know him later. Now I have far less time, and far fewer things to do that are more important than making and keeping friends.
I had always thought that successful careers, happy marriages, well-raised children, church and community volunteer work, political activism — all the projects and accomplishments which as adults we are urged to do — were the very point and meaning of life. Then, after my friends died, I thought these pursuits were all pointless, since Jim and John, who did more of them better than anyone I’ve known, were taken away when their work was less than half-finished.
Now, a year later, I remember that John taught his students until he was too sick to continue, and was involved in raising his children almost to the day of his death. And Jim died after having lunch with his teenage daughter, who was attending school among strangers and in an unfamiliar language; he could have been furthering his career by having lunch with his colleagues, but he was where he was needed most. It seems to me now that the completion of the work we are given to do is not so important as doing the work, from day to day, as well as we can. When the end of my own life comes, I hope it finds me in the place where I am needed most.
As the shock of these deaths has faded, and a semblance of proportion returned to my mind, I have remembered three things that were lost in the upheavals of that time but that now seem very beautiful. It is a terrible beauty, and it would be far better for all concerned, and especially for the dead and their families, had the circumstances that created it never arisen; yet the world is what it is, and what I have salvaged from my memories of that time is far better than the nothing with which I seemed at first to be left.
During the winter that followed John’s death, his widow made breakfast for her children in the early-morning darkness, left for work, came home with groceries, drove her son to soccer games and her daughter to ballet, said grace with them at the dinner table. In the unending presence of painful loss and of the possibility of a recurrence of her own illness, this decent, pious, responsible life went on. This is what faith looks like when it is acted upon: the good and right way is followed no matter what happens, because those who follow it believe it is good and right; indeed, they follow it even when life is too hard to think much about the good and the right.
At Jim’s funeral, I saw friend after friend rise during the time for speaking, and express their gratitude for his life and their sense of loss at his death. It must have been hard for them to show their feelings to such a large crowd of strangers — especially hard for the ones who were crying as they spoke; nevertheless, they rose and spoke, one after another, on and on until I half-expected Jim himself to rise (I still could not believe that he was gone) and with cheerful self-deprecation bring the tributes to an end. I had seen many of these people at dinner parties and open houses hosted by Jim and his wife, and had always thought that such formal and conventional relationships did not involve any very strong feelings — certainly not love. Now I saw that I had been wrong. It was love that animated these difficult public gestures. These people had liked and admired and respected Jim, and as they recounted the many kind and thoughtful things he had done for them, it occurred to me that they would have done — and probably had done — the same for him. If this was not love, then what was it? And if it was love, then love grew in places I had never thought to look for it, in after-dinner conversations and over cocktails and during U-Haul moves and faculty teas. Not the kind of love you fall into, or the fierce protective love you have for your children, but the slow-growing, seldom-acknowledged love of friend for friend, a love that is taken utterly for granted, that often finds expression only when its object dies or moves far away. And I found, now that Jim was gone, that it had grown also in me.
At Kay’s funeral visitation, my wife’s Aunt Milly hugged us both and said that she had hated Kay’s husband for what he did to her daughter. “He brought her to this,” she told us, “and I wanted to kill him, and I prayed to God for the strength to forgive him. And you know,” she said, “that very minute all my hate was taken away, and when he came to see Kay, we sat together and had a good long talk, and I invited him out to the house after the funeral, and I want you to come out and be with him.”
That was all: a few words spoken in a corner of a funeral home in a small Minnesota town; yet when even the memory of all the great events of that year, and of every year, has passed away, I will remember that my wife’s Aunt Milly forgave the man who hastened her daughter’s death, and invited him out to the house, and asked her family to be with him. And if this mighty act could happen so quietly, so far from the center of the stage, could it be that countless other astonishing acts of charity and humility were being done that day — and every day — unseen amid the confusions of a proud and vengeful world? And could it be that these acts belong to an unseen order of things more real and more lasting than this world to which my friends have died, this world in which their deaths and their lives have seemed so pointless? Can it be that things are not what they seem, and that, as the hymns of comfort say, all is well? I cannot know this; I can only believe that it is so. And it helps my belief immeasurably to know that, though my friends are dead, faith and forgiveness and the love of friends have survived, and are doing well.