Thursday, October 25, 2018

Ripples in the sand

The report of my death was an exaggeration

Imagine my surprise when I learned that I have been dead for nearly 40 years. I thought back, trying to recall what I had been doing on December 1st, 1978, the day of my reputed passing, but drew a blank. I guess death does that to a person, blots out the memory of an unpleasantness.

Notification of my deceased status came to me in the form of an email from a high school classmate. Our 50th class reunion was approaching and he had gone to the reunion website to see who had signed up to attend. The website also included a list of deceased classmates, with their photos from our senior yearbook and dates of death, a kind of digital wall of remembrance. He was surprised to see my name and likeness posted there, especially since he recalled reading a short story of mine that had been published in a literary magazine nearly 30 years after my supposed demise.

Perplexed, he did some online research and discovered more of my posthumously published work, including a guest column printed in the November 22, 2013 edition of The News-Review of Roseburg, Oregon. The column’s tag listed my email address, which he promptly used to send me a missive. “I’m glad you’re not dead,” he wrote. “But if you wish to remain dead, I won’t tell anyone.”

It is a strange feeling to know that people with whom you were once well acquainted think you are dead, and have been for some time. I wonder what their emotions were when they heard the news. I wonder HOW they heard the news. They certainly didn’t hear it from me.

For some time, I pondered how to respond to this circumstance. As my former classmate intimated in his email, I could simply stay dead by staying silent. Or, I could do as my wife suggested, tongue in cheek I presume, and simply show up unannounced at the reunion. It would be one way to turn some heads, but it could also be hard on some old hearts. In the end, I decided to follow Mark Twain’s famous example and let it be known to all concerned that “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

But all this got me to thinking. What if I had died nearly four decades ago? Would anything of significance during those intervening years have turned out differently? Certainly my family and close friends would have mourned my loss. But would my absence have altered the course of anyone else’s life?

We would all like to think our time on earth, our physical existence, has meant something—has counted for something, if only in a small way. We would hope that somehow we’ve been able to make a difference in someone else’s life—made someone’s burden lighter, eased someone’s suffering, put a smile on someone’s face or a bit of joy in someone’s heart.

I am not a mystic by any stretch of the imagination. But I do believe that we are all connected in some transcendental way, and that, as our lives intersect, what we do impacts other lives positively or negatively, often in ways that send out far-reaching ripples of effect. And as I look back on my life, including the years of my alleged absence from this world, my only hope is that my interactions with others have engendered more positive than negative effects.

How else can one justify having lived well beyond the time of one’s presumed passing?

(A version of this essay was previously published in The News-Review of Roseburg, Oregon)