It embarrasses me to admit this, but the first time I ever flew in an airplane happened when I was 21 years old. I was a senior in college, and my girlfriend wanted me to come visit her in New Mexico over the holidays.
The first time I flew was out of the Capital airport in Springfield, Illinois. As the plane took off and climbed into the sky, I was struck by all of the cornfields that ringed the airport. My decision to leave Springfield and begin my life somewhere else–anywhere else, really–had already been made by then, but the cornfield with an airport in the middle of it served to confirm the choice. I doubt that I’ll ever fly into or out of that airport again.
When that plane landed at O’Hare in Chicago, I made my connecting flight and buckled in at my window seat. As the plane took off, I focused my attention on the engine that was attached to the wing. For a split second, I wondered what I would do if the engine somehow fell off of the wing. The plane continued its ascent, as I looked around for an exit that would allow me to break free if I needed to. But the feeling didn’t last more than a few seconds.
My fatalistic streak immediately took over, and reminded my worried inner self that if that happened, there wouldn’t be a thing I could do about it. It would be my time to die–or maybe to live if I got real lucky–but it was out of my hands, entirely. I sat back, ashamed that I had allowed myself to worry about something so outlandish, and enjoyed the rest of the flight. I’ve flown many, many times since then, and never once have I worried about a plane crash.
I say all this because everybody on this earth has an end date, a final act, a last go-round. I have one, you have one, and the next person that you will speak to does, too. We’re all mortal, and the end can come forty years from now, or it can come before the sun rises tomorrow morning. The sudden death of Richard Durrett, a sportswriter in Dallas, makes this point better than I ever could. Durrett’s death yesterday of a brain aneurysm–his cause of death is missing from many of the announcements I’ve read–is shocking because it happened when he was just 38 years old.
A guy in his late 30s expects to live a few more decades, at least. If anything, the dreaded 40 is looming off in the distance, and makes its presence known with a great big thud on the 39th birthday. Nobody looks forward to turning 40 because everyone–on either side of that age–gets to razz you about the fact that you’re getting old.
Jimmy Buffett’s song “A Pirate looks at Forty” is well-named because, even though the number 40 does not appear in the song’s lyrics, it’s a number just big enough to get us thinking about where we’ve been in life, and to wonder about what the future still holds. Richard Durrett was denied even this little bit of introspection, because 40 is not promised to any of us. Many of us live to see it, but that doesn’t mean everyone will.
It seems, from all of the tweets I’ve been reading, that Richard Durrett was a great guy. I’m sure that his passing leaves family, friends, colleagues, and people who never knew of him before wondering what the hell happened. And there really isn’t a good explanation to be offered, other than that life is a fleeting and unknowable gift. We take the good, and we ride out the bad, for as long as we’re able to do so. And then–in a time and place that we never get to know about in advance–it’s all over. Just like that. It’s harsh and terrible, but it’s the one real certainty that life offers.
I think about the Father’s day that just happened over the past weekend. I’m quite certain that Richard Durrett and his family had no expectation that it would be his last one. But that engine can fall off the airplane at any time, and when it does (because there is no if about it) it’s best if we remembered to enjoy as much as we could along the way.