Four months and three days ago, impossible to believe it’s already been that much time, my grandfather was killed in a car crash not even five minutes from my home. Of the two individuals involved in the accident, one made it out with a scratch hardly deserving of a bandage, while the other paid the ultimate price, and that person was my grandfather. He was a famous jazz musician who had been playing the trumpet for just about his entire life. The news came to us early in the morning (or late into the night by my association) with no preparation or warning. He had intended to sit in at the restaurant that evening so that he could play a few tunes with his new mouthpiece. It was my understanding that he had been in search of a new mouthpiece that would fit his trumpet and suit his physical needs to play it the way he wanted—an inextricable process. Apparently that day he thought he had finally found one. That evening, as he noisily stumbled across the kitchen on his way to the door, clutching the decades-old case that contained his trumpet, he was ready. I peered up from my usual business at the computer. I couldn’t help but notice that he was uncharacteristically well-dressed. He was clearly dressed for a purpose.
“Going out tonight?” I said, knowing full well that he did not play on Saturdays.
“Yeah I’m going to jam with the guys for a little bit, I won’t be too late!” He said in his typical upbeat tone. My usual response was sure to follow.
“Go get ‘em.”
Surely there was something mumbled back to me in appreciation but he was already racing downstairs so he could go do the thing that he loved to do. Play the trumpet. Entertain. Live. And Love.
And that was the last time I saw my grandfather.
This is the first time I have experienced a death of someone close to me. I guess I should in some ways consider myself lucky. But on the same token, maybe I shouldn’t, as there is sure more to come, or alternatively, my own time could be cut short. Death is one of those universal mysteries that every single person on this earth will have to cope with at some point in their lives, and some might find themselves confronting its bone-chilling touch while they are still alive. What are we to do about this? How are we expected to go about our daily lives knowing that we are manufactured and thrown into this world with expiration dates stamped onto our foreheads with ink so moist that even the slightest smudge could change that date entirely? In my own reflection, I’ve drawn from the wisdom of someone who was one of the world’s leading intellectuals and among the most inspirational figures in my life; the late Christopher Hitchens, who unfortunately died of esophageal cancer in December of last year. Hitchens was a controversial public figure who championed the atheist movement and authored numerous best sellers such as God Is Not Great. My admiration of this man comes not from his opinions but rather from the way he lived his life. Hitchens was a devotee of knowledge. He lived his life courageously on the drive that ultimate knowledge and wisdom is unattainable, but the next best thing is the constant pursuit of such. To, I daresay, summarize the Hitch is to quote him in saying: “I want to live my life taking the risk all the time that I don’t know anything like enough yet, that I haven’t understood enough, that I can’t know enough and that I’m always hungrily operating on the margins of a potentially great harvest of future knowledge and wisdom. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Take the risk of thinking for yourself. Much more happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom will come to you that way.”
In 2010, Hitchens found out that he had esophageal cancer and that he had, at best, two years to live. An unimaginable horror for any human being is the prospect that your life is brought into focus through the knowledge of your imminent demise. Living with the fact that you know when and how you are going to die is terrifyingly incomprehensible. In just the United States, one million people are diagnosed with some form of cancer every year and nearly half of them will undergo the task of living their life knowing it will be severely abbreviated and that their illness will ultimately claim it. Hitchens was just one of many who, even with that knowledge, stood up to his ailment and persevered in his life and his work.
“It will happen to all of that us that at some point you will be tapped on the shoulder and told not just that the party is over but slightly worse, the party isn’t over but you have to leave. And it’s going on without you. That’s the reflection that most upsets people about their demise.”
His courage is transformative, and it’s given me enormous perspective on how to view my life after the sudden death of my grandfather. Both men were taken from this earth in a specific fashion. These are the two ways that human beings die: with knowledge or without. But only their bodies are gone. Both of them left behind parts of them that continue to live and grow within the people that they have touched.
To my grandfather, I wish I could say I will see you again but I just don’t know if that will be the case. As much as I want to believe that you’re up there looking down, I’m bound by own personal logic through which I’m compelled to simply stay grounded in speculation. What I do know is that you are immortal through your legacy and your impact. I can still see your face and hear your trumpet as you shoot off the notes to a classic in good ol’ Colombo fashion. That’s good enough for me.
“We fooled them again!”
Louis Colombo (1927-2012)