by Robert J Lanz, LCSW
I watched a young man die tonight. A man far too young to die. He died before he even knew the thrill of first love, of first passion, before he could even know the heartache of losing his first love and the recovery and realization that love will always come again. He didn’t get a chance to finish high school and to receive his diploma, the first in his family who would have done so. He missed all of this because a moment’s distraction, a brief twist of the head, maybe to check out someone who could have become his first love, or at least his first passion. Who knows what happened? At that age, everything happens so fast and often without reason. We’ve all had those moments, and somehow, blindly survived. They are moments that take us from youth to adulthood, the ones we miss when we think about how good it was to be young. Sometimes, those moments that are so overpowering, they can lead to tragedy. Today, it was a wrong turn and it was death and to make it worse, I had to watch his father watch him die, his tears spilling down his cheeks while I tried to hide my own.
I thought about all the times I was angry with my father, and all the times he was angry with me, and it seemed so silly as I watched the youthful life slip away. It was one of those moments in which there is such clarity, I wonder how anyone could not be aware of it’s importance, how anyone could fight or fret over the trivial things they frequently do. All of the name calling, the blaming, the fears, the disappointments, seemed so trivial as the last few breaths of a man’s only son grew labored and faded into the night along with his dreams, whatever they might have been.
I was sorry for not living up to the dreams of my own father, who died with higher hopes for me than I had achieved. It was a painful remembrance, and to have to watch this situation, in which all was forgiven, was a sacred moment, a moment I will always be sorry my own father missed. Then again, the watching was such a painful moment, I didn’t want anyone to ever have to feel that way about me, about anyone. It was one of those important moments in life we only get to see clearly when it is too late, and I thought, if we could only see life as clearly at the beginning as we do at the end, what a difference it would make.
The details of the accident that brought the boy to us that night were never clear. It didn’t really matter; it wouldn’t change my pain or the pain of the boy’s father. Nothing would do that, not knowledge and not time. This was a death the father would live with until he too, finally passed on, his own dying a welcome relief and a chance to see his son one more time. A chance perhaps, to tell him all those things he had always wanted to but hadn’t found the time to tell him. Like most of us, he probably didn’t realize he might never get the chance. Like most of us, he probably thought he would get around to it some day, but he just didn’t think that day would come so soon and with such fierceness. Of course, we knew that day would come, because we are in the “that day will come” business. We know that look in the eye of person who realizes the opportunity is slipping away and is finally gone; too late for the last “I love you” or the “I’m sorry.” I wish I could say experience made things easier for us but my own tears told me it didn’t.
All I knew about the dying young man was what his father told me as we talked quietly, waiting for a miracle. The family had survived the ravages of war in their own country and escaped to America where they thought they would find safety. Then they discovered there is no such place. Shortly after arriving here, their apartment burned to the ground and they lost everything. A few months later, one of California’s earthquakes shook their new home to rubble and the family all had flashbacks to another time of fear. They told me that bombs and earthquakes feel the same.
The family had held together and survived it all, the wars, the bombs, the fires, the quakes and now this. They were losing the battle of the city, automobiles against humans, like so many before them. The week before, the young man had used all the money he had saved from his after-school job to buy a car. Within four days he got a ticket for riding with a passenger who didn’t use his seat belt—his younger brother. Both of them felt as if nothing bad could ever find them again. So much had already happened, they probably believed, it was going to be another person’s turn for a change, but they were wrong. Fate doesn’t know about turns, doesn’t care about righteousness, and doesn’t follow a plan. It just exists, and sometimes there is little to do about it.
That night, the boy in his car hit a tree and then hit his head on the steering wheel, and it would cause his death. The seat belt was beside him on the seat, as lifeless as he was. His father held his own head his hands and cried and asked why. I wish I knew the answer to that question.
I’ve watched so many patients die—kids, old people, young people, some that looked like me and some that looked like someone I loved. This was the first time I watched a man watch his son die. It hurt more than I thought it would, and I found myself wishing more than ever that I knew how to stop the pain for us. As the cardiac monitor went to flat line, its tone without a rhythm, I looked at the weeping father and thought, if it were me, I could learn to live with my own pain, but as I watched the father’s face I knew I would never learn to live with his.