Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Tomorrow Is No Sure Thing
From time to time I find myself thinking about a news story I edited years ago.
It had to do with a man who worked in an office in a high-rise in a large city in the East or Midwest and was a creature of habit. Every Friday morning he got his paycheck and exactly at noon, he left for his lunch hour, rode the elevator to the ground floor, went into his bank nearby, and deposited the check.
One week he had something coming up on the weekend and had to run a couple of extra errands. So instead of leaving the office at noon, he left at 11:45, rode the elevator to the ground floor, went into his bank, and walked through the door just as a holdup in progress turned into a shootout. He was killed by a stray bullet, leaving a wife and children to carry on without him, and probably to wonder forever why he couldn’t have left the office at his regular time.
I thought of that story again recently when I read another one about a 39-year-old woman who left Monterey on a recent Sunday afternoon to ride her motorcycle to her home north of San Francisco.
At about 4 p.m. on a clear sunny day, just shy of the northern boundary of Monterey County, a car being followed by the Highway Patrol crossed the center lane of the two-lane road she was on. She was killed when she hit it, and the driver of the car was killed when it ran off the road and down an embankment. If she’d left Monterey a few minutes earlier or later, she’d still be alive.
Over the years I’ve written and edited more stories than I care to remember about people who woke up in the morning having no idea that it was going to be their last day on earth. They ranged from wrong-place-wrong-time incidents such as the above to more mundane departures.
In the latter category was a story that ran as a plain obituary. It was about a man in his late 70s who keeled over from a heart attack while dancing the Tennessee Two-Step at an RV park where he and his wife had stopped while on the road. You could ask for a few more years, but how many people die that happy?
The news business puts stories like this in front of you all the time, and it’s hard to deal with any number of them without developing a true appreciation of the fragility and transience of life. I’d like to be able to claim that this awareness has changed me profoundly for the better, but it hasn’t. I still waste time, put off things I shouldn’t, and generally act as if I’m going to live forever. But in some small way, I do believe I’ve learned to live in the present more and the past and future less, and to enjoy the moment. That’s something.
Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that his idea of the perfect life was to live in vigorous good health to the age of 90, then be shot to death by a jealous husband. He got the first part, but not the second. I’d like to catch that bullet, too, but the odds aren’t good. Tennessee two-step is a slightly better bet, but I’d have to learn the dance. So to myself and everyone else, I’d like to say have a nice day today. There’s no guarantee we’re going to get another one.