Kurt Vonnegut just died this week, and the world is less for it. However, there was recently another, more subtle death that affected me. A man my age, whom I went to school with since the 5th grade, died two weeks ago, a year after being diagnosed with colon cancer. I would call it tragic, but I don't really believe in tragedy because it implies an intent. I don't know what to call it. It happened. I wish it hadn't.
Today I attended his memorial service, both at church and at a gathering for family and friends. Truth be told, I was never close to Aaron Schulte. The first I remember of him is from 5th grade when he moved to Lake Oswego. At the time, anybody who was anybody played wall ball during recess. We had a newly constructed elementary school with an excellent corridor for many varied wall ball courts. And here comes this kid from Washington to establish himself as the dominant King of Wall Ball. I'm talking skipsies, cuts, hopsies and whatever other silly rules and strategies we were inventing at the time, he could do them all. Naturally, I resented him for his talent. But I never remember him being boastful or unkind about his status and abilities. Those of you that have ever been in 5th grade know what a rarity that kind of character is. But as became all to clear today, it was par for the course for this one man.
Fast forward to junior high. I don't remember if it was my 12th or 13th birthday, but my best friend at the time, Aaron White, had moved to Indonesia with his family and I had no good friends to spend my birthday with. Almost on a whim, I invited two people to come out with me: The new kid, Scott Thompson, who I thought was super cool, and Aaron Shulte, who had maybe played roller hockey with me a few times. My Dad took all of us out to Escape from New York Pizza and then to a Winterhawks game. Though I don't remember any real details about the evening, it was a fun time with new friends when I really needed them. Schulte (he was always the kind of guy who was called by his last name, despite his having two younger brothers who were at school with us) he always acted as a friend toward everybody. That night, he was one of mine.
In high school, we had a tradition called May Fete. Once a year, all four classes would rally and put on a skit in front of the student body. Aaron, who was involved in class politics every year, loved to take part in these. Being a theater geek, my friends and I often had a hand in writing and performing in these skits. Sophomore year, the theme was something to do with "on the back lot"... I think. Well, Aaron stole the show in our climatic fight scene (there were always fight scenes. It was high school.) as Rocky – who as I learned today, was one of his heroes.
I lost track of him after high school. He returned to Washington to go to school, join a fraternity, etc. A year ago, he popped back on the radar when I heard through channels that he had cancer. It's the kind of thing that doesn't make sense: 25-year-olds don't get cancer. And I let it slide. I made no effort. I'm not regretful about that, but I could have behaved differently. It feels important to me that I acknowledge my choice in the matter. In any case, that brings us to today: his funeral.
I don't believe in God. I believe in People. Today was a day that validated that belief. Most people of faith will tell you that people will let you down sooner or later, where God is steadfast. That is true, if you believe it. But I don't believe that people's ability, even tendency, to falter is a justification for not putting your faith with them. People can embody every virtue. That potential is not something to be treated like a lucky streak we're all waiting to run out. It should be encouraged and celebrated. That is what I saw today. Aaron was, with no exaggeration, the last person anything like this should happen to. His disease came out of nowhere, attacked him relentlessly and took him "too soon," for as much as that means. It's such an unjust death, it seems scripted. What makes his story even more surreal, though, is the strength I now know he possessed through his illness and the strength that gave to those around him. By all accounts, his family should be grieved beyond consolation. But I saw them today smiling, greeting friends and speaking of Aaron's life without the faintest hint of resentment about his fate. They mourn the loss, but they do it with such grace and love for life... I don't really know how to put it. Aaron's father made a touching video to show in remembrance. Not only did they show him during the good times, they unflinchingly - even proudly, showed him emaciated by his cancer, a shadow of his healthy self. I watched all this, listened to the stories people told and thought "this is how these things should be, but nobody ever expects people to have the strength to do it." Today I saw that strength and I am touched by it.
There were at least 400 people at the service today. I saw people from high school that flew from the opposite end of the country to be there. I saw teachers and community members I haven't seen in 8 years. All these people brought together by loss. I had the image during the Catholic Mass of Aaron as a weight attached by strings to many smaller weights all suspended somehow. And as Aaron's weight is dropped, all these sorted loads are drawn together for a brief moment of solidarity before the strings attaching them to the large weight are finally snapped by the pull of gravity. But for the brief moment that we are all brought together, it is as if the smaller weights are trying to support the large one from being pulled away.
I'm not a quoter of literature, but the first book that made me love Hemingway is For Whom The Bell Tolls. Most people probably know this, but the title is taken from a passage with a much more famous phrase by John Donne, and it is fitting for the moment. It goes:
"No man is an Iland, intire of its selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee."