The sudden death by shooting of a neighbor a block away from me a few nights ago has certainly got me to thinking. I didn’t know this man, but many people I know did know him. He was about 20 years younger than me. He was married and had a young child. Apparently, he went outside last Friday evening to take the garbage out to the alley and ran into an intruder in his backyard who shot him three times.
We have festooned the trees and front porches of our houses with green ribbons in tribute to this man’s Irish ancestry. It is quite beautiful, quite moving. Even though I don’t think I ever met him, it is obvious that the hole he left behind when he was gunned down in his backyard is huge and unfillable.
Like him, I come from an Irish heritage. That means I think about death a lot. I don’t mean that to be either maudlin or cute. It just is. My mother’s side of the family was very large, and my father’s side was no slouch either when it came to numbers. Our family started going to funerals of grandparents when I was in my early teens and, in the years that followed, the funerals of various relatives. Death was not something that was kept from us, and an Irish wake is one of the most joyous and boisterous celebrations of life that I think has ever been invented.
Beyond that, I became an altar boy in the fifth grade, and I would often serve at funerals at Saint Ignatius Parish in Hicksville, Long Island, New York. Not only did I get paid 50 cents for every funeral, but I got out of class for an hour. You can’t beat that!
Now that I’m in my late 60s, I do think of death a lot more than I used to. Of course, as a gay man of my generation, I thought about death quite a bit in my 20s and 30s, so much more than anyone in my age cohort should ever have had to. So many men like myself got sick and — just like that — died, an entire generation lost to a virus that can now be controlled but is still with us.
As such, I am no stranger to death, but the killing of my neighbor this past weekend has made it more present than it usually is, even for me.
Look. I’m going to say something here, and I don’t want you to take it the wrong way. I do want to, I do INTEND to, live to a ripe old age. But I’m also realistic. I know that every day brings me one day closer to The Big Finish. I also know that I live in a country that is full of guns, in a state that is full of guns, in a city that is full of guns. And I live in a country that is full of people who drive cars while they’re sending texts and watching TikTok videos. Finally, I know that I live in a country where about a third of all adults think that vaccines are more dangerous than a pandemic that has killed a million of our fellow Americans. Death is all around us, around me, and I know that someday it will come for me.
And honestly, I’m OK with that. When I look back at my life, I can’t say I have any major regrets. I may not have always made the right choice, but I feel I’ve worked hard to make the best of every choice I did make. I feel like I’ve worked hard to make a difference in people’s lives and to come at it from a place of generosity, at least as much as I was capable of at that point in my life.
There are plenty of things that I will never do by the time I die. I won’t be a parent. I more than likely will never get married. I will never climb Mount Everest. I will never go scuba diving. I will never visit Antarctica. Now, of course, any of those things COULD happen, as well as a million others, but if they don’t, I’ll be OK with that.
The thing is, I am just so lucky! I mean, I’ve gotten to do work that I love that I think has made a difference in people’s lives. I’ve gotten to spent a lot of my time that was not officially work trying to make the world a better place. I’ve even gottten to create some art that people have enjoyed and remembered and been moved by. I’ve done what I can to be a healing presence. And I’m really happy about all that. So if, for some reason, it all ends tomorrow, I can — well — LIVE with that!
Still, like I said, I really do hope I continue to live a long and healthy and productive life, and I will be most saddened to know that there will be people who will be terribly upset that I’ll be leaving and creating an unfillable hole of my own. But I think — I hope — that leaving others behind will be my only sadness. So if I do happen to get hit by that proverbial bus or fall off that proverbial cliff or get shot by that proverbial intruder, I’m betting that my dying thought won’t be, “Damn! I never got to…” but rather, “Wow! That was a cool ride!”