Ethics Reflections On The Sudden Death Of Wonderful Human Being

regret

I returned from a legal ethics teaching tour to the horrible news that a friend of mine had died in a freak accident at his home. I had just seen him for the first time in many months when he showed up unexpectedly on the final weekend of my theater company, and the production I directed for it as a final bow. When I spotted him in the theater lobby that day two months ago, I shouted his name and gave him a long hug. He was one of those amazing people who just made you feel better about the world knowing that people like him were still in it.

Now, just like that, he’s gone. An e-mail from him that arrived right before my trip sits unanswered in my in-box. I didn’t rush to return it—what was the rush? Life, of course, is the rush, and this has happened to me before. Why don’t I learn?

I have been prolific on Facebook as I join his many friends in reminding each other what a kind, generous, selfless, dignified and talented individual he was, as a teacher, archivist, singer, actor and all-around mensch. It turns out that dozens of people had the same kinds of experiences with him that I had: spontaneous gestures of caring and kindness, comfort and sympathy in times of crisis, and the ability to be a role model, reminding everyone that the Golden Rule really does work, and that it really is possible to think of others first. And yet none of us, as far as I can tell,  ever expressed the depth of our love and admiration for this wonderful man to his face. I would not say that these outpourings are valueless now, but it is upsetting to think that such a good man may have never known how much he was appreciated.

Maybe it didn’t make any difference to him. I don’t know about that: nobody I have ever known accepted compliments better. He starred in a play I directed, and was marvelous, as well as joy to direct; he also waived most of his fee as a union actor, contributing it as a gift to the theater, because he wanted the production to be a success and not strangled by budget issues. After we closed, I told him what a marvelous job he had done in the role, and his eyes lit up, he grasped my hand, he lowered his vice and said, showing sincere emotion,”Thank you—I can’t express how much that means to me.” His humility choked me up on the spot. It will haunt me to think that he may not have known how much he meant to so many people. Is it really possible that nobody told him before it was too late?

I really didn’t know that much about this man. I never socialized with him or even shared a meal with him. He and I would be involved in periodic projects together; he had spent some time with my father, and was an admirer. We checked in on each other by phone or e-mail from time to time after he left the area for a series of new enterprises and career turns. I think he lived alone; I never met any “significant other”. Was he lonely? Did his always optimistic and pleasant attitude mask some deep pain or dark secret? I don’t know. All I know is that he was a benign and welcome presence in my life every time he entered it.

He was a Mormon; in fact, he had sung in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. He was also gay. He didn’t make a big deal about it, like so many in the theater community; he didn’t hide it either. He evidently felt that his sexuality was not relevant to most of his relationships. and behaved accordingly, expecting his privacy to be respected, and assuming that he would be treated with the same respect and fairness as he granted everyone else.

As a gay man, he is exactly the kind of person who makes me scratch my head in wonder when I think about the supposedly godly and spiritual people who condemn gays as a blight on civilization, and who want to withhold basic human rights from them based on whom they choose to love. These misguided souls should have met my friend, and then been asked how they could not want anything but the best for such an exemplary individual. The next question would be how they would explain why their god would create a man who embodied every virtue, and who appeared to live to make the world a a better place, and then direct that that same man be denied the rights and pleasures of far less admirable people. The following query would ask how such a man could not be judged not only a qualified parent, but probably a gifted one. The last question, I suppose, would be this: “What the hell is the matter with you? This man is a role model, an exemplar, and you have the arrogance and gall to proclaim yourself superior to him? How can you stand yourself?”

Mostly, however, as I ponder this loss over the last few days, I find myself wondering if we should acknowledge an obligation to let the really good people in our lives know how much we appreciate them,  not through plaques or honors or the impersonal applause of crowds and audiences, but by a direct and personal expression of thanks, and words that express reciprocal love for their kindness, inspiration and ethical leadership. My father was one of those people, and he hated direct compliments, receiving them or giving them. I never told him that he was my hero, or how much I loved him.

And my noble, loving, special friend still has his unanswered e-mail in my in-box.

13 thoughts on “Ethics Reflections On The Sudden Death Of Wonderful Human Being

  1. Jack.

    Please accept our deepest sympathy and condolences. I will bet that your friend knew what esteem others held him in. I have such a friend in my life and he would not want accolades, just friendship. That seems to be his recompense. He is a truly decent guy, a great husband, and an involved, carrying father. He is successful but regards it as simply a blessing. Oh, and he has a wicked sense of humor. If you aren’t laughing in his presence, then there is something wrong with you. I am grateful for such a friendship.

    As to your query whether we should acknowledge, directly and unequivocally, those in our midst who are lights in our lives, I am torn. My wife is a great example of this. She is so talented, so bright, such a wonderful person (most wonder how she has put up with me for 18 years!!!), and great wife and mother to our irascible son. But she would be embarrassed by lavishing praise. I think she wants to see in appreciation for what she does and is. I know I fall short in recognizing her talents – but I try.

    jvb

  2. My condolences on the loss of your friend. About ten years ago, the first of my professional role models and mentors passed away without my directly expressing my appreciation and admiration for the extraordinary person he had always been. I could not believe that I had let this happen and I made a personal commitment to not let it happen again. I have actively sought out -and in a few cases tracked down- over a dozen people who were key influences in my life from around age 16, and let them know how much they meant to me, and to many others that I knew about. A few were embarrassed by the praise, but very gracious about it. Some knew that they had been, or had at least tried to be, a positive influence, but we had lost contact over the years and they were pleased to learn that I had turned out okay. I was able to tell my Dad -to his great discomfort- how much I admired him and felt challenged to live up to his example as a father and a man (he passed in 2009). I have reached out to many old friends and former colleagues for the same reasons. I have many faults, but ingratitude is not one of them. People deserve to know that they are appreciated, even those whose reward is in the doing and not the receipt of accolades and compliments.

  3. Jack, my condolences. I know that the current pain will subside in time to a tolerable ache, and when it does, remember how lucky, and honored, you are to have know what sounds like a wonderful man.

  4. “I think about the supposedly godly and spiritual people who condemn gays as a blight on civilization”

    Godly and spiritual people don’t think that. Nor do they think they are superior to gay people.

    I’m sorry your friend passed away so suddenly. The suddenness makes it much worse I think. My father died at 72 very suddenly, it was shattering. My mother’s second husband, the only grandfather my youngest daughter ever knew, died recently after a long battle with 3 different kinds of cancer. While a lingering death is extremely difficult, at least people had a chance to express their love and say goodbye.

  5. First of all, Jack, condolences on the sudden loss of your friend. Sudden losses are always that much tougher to take, and it sounds like this one was really just out of nowhere.

    My father made a point of getting my mother whatever flowers she wanted for her garden, because he didn’t want her to get a lot of flowers after she was gone and couldn’t enjoy them. Of course, that was their dynamic, and there is no one size dynamic that fits every relationship. It sounds like your friend was OK with how you handled things in life, and you have nothing to be at all ashamed of.

    C.S. Lewis once had Christ in the form of a lion say that “no one is ever told what WOULD have happened,” and I think we do ourselves a disservice if we keep asking that. The only two questions we can answer are what did happen and what will happen. So take the lesson from what did and try to make what will be what you want.

    As for the question of your friend’s orientation and what others might have believed, well, the only thing I can say is that either people believe something or they don’t. If they believe, nothing will dissuade them, if not, nothing will persuade them. I know plenty of decent people from the UK, but a former coworker would condemn them all because of things that happened in Ireland that have zero to do with him or them. I know decent people from Japan who another friend of mine would condemn out of hand because he had family in the Pacific campaign. And let’s not forget all the decent people in Israel who a large number of Muslim people would all like to see lying dead in a big pile for no reason other than belief.

    To do any of this is neither logical nor ethical, but it is belief. The same goes for those who’d condemn your friend for what he was without knowing him. That said, it’s no more ethical for you to introduce him to a stubborn born-again friend, then do a Big Reveal after he’s gone on his way, than it would be for me to introduce my former co-worker to a charming UK friend (leaving aside the giveaway accent) then do a Big Reveal. It would be an ambush, and unlikely to achieve its goal.

  6. “We are always wasting time, until finally it wastes us” (paraphrased from memory, which unfortunately fails me as to who first said it).

    “Men die, women die, cattle die, but this I know that never dies: how dead men’s deeds are deemed” (also from memory, from some Norse saga or other).

  7. Thank you, Jack, once again. About a year ago, you posted on the death of someone else (I don’t recall the name, I’m sorry) who embodied so many ethical virtues that had not been acknowledged as they deserved. I learned the lesson then, but neglected to tell you that the post had inspired me to re-connect with five folks who had made crucial differences in my life, by example as well as by word.

    Two of them turned out to be significantly younger than myself, so crediting them with the appreciation I felt was somewhat embarrassing to them, and only after long reconnecting (in correspondence in one case, conversation in the other)… really connecting for the first time … could either one accept that it was valid, and the embarrassment devolve into a cautious acceptance that grows warmer with each exchange.

    Two others were then current very long-time friends whom I saw at least once a week. One is of the old-school (your dad’s) never-let-’em-see-you-blush and never-let-the-sun-go-down-on-a-compliment sort. (If she were male and had a moustache to hide behind — she is in life a delicate, stylish brunette, still nubile, to those who notice, at 79 — she would still be harrummphing behind it). She has never said anything to me directly but has since, I heard, revealed many of the ethical and life lessons she had only expressed privately before, openly, to others. The other is a man who surprised me by graciously and simply accepting my regard, telling me how good it made him feel to hear it.

    Most of all, I thank you for the last connection I was able to make: it had a double-barrelled effect. I heard from my friend only indirectly, from his sister who wrote after my friend died in another state (he had left quietly without telling anyone about the cancer), that – I am paraphrasing – he had received my email in good time and was sorry he wasn’t up to writing the answer it deserved, but that he had asked for parts of it to be read to his cousin so-and-so, who always felt my friend couldn’t possibly have anything to say or examples to lead by because he was gay. His sister said she had done as he asked; and the effect on the cousin was “a wake-up call” — a bit late, but valuable all the more for it.

    Getting the credit to you, Jack, is also late. I would be sorry for that, except that it gave me an extra-ethical boost to be reminded of the reason for it. I’m thinking that the thoughts behind the “thank-you reminders” are something that bears repeating … at least annually.

  8. I’d like to think he knew. He loved all of us like we loved him, only he perhaps loved us better, just cuz he did. He knew what a mensch you are, too, Jack, even though we can’t all be as gentle as he always was. And I like to think of him looking down at all of us now, knowing all we’re saying about him. He’s got the best seat in the house for everything else we do. We were truly blessed to have known him.

  9. Jack, I have already expressed my sympathies to you in the death of your friend, but again I am very sorry for your loss. I learned, and keep learning, this lesson years ago when I first returned to the area. I wanted to contact a beloved professor from college, only to find out that he had passed away. He had been alive, although probably in the last stages of his final illness, when we first moved to the area, but I waited a couple of months before seeking him out. I didn’t know that he had been ill, and he passed away before I sought him out. Virtually this same scenario has played out several more times in the intervening 15 years. Somehow I have not taken the lesson to heart adequately. Life is so short. Maybe I’ll get it someday. Meanwhile, I have a feeling that your friend knew how much you appreciated him.

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