Death brings reflections on life

by Doug Ferguson
February 1996

When the blazing August sun rose over the Atlantic last Saturday, it did so with one less person to see it. It was the first sunrise in more than thirty years that shed its light on a world without my friend, Mike. Although I'm sure that many other people in the world died that night -- taking their last breaths before the break of dawn -- I didn't know them. Memories of their lives may endure in the people who were their friends and family, but I only knew Mike ... and his memory lives on in me.

I got the call at 9:30 Saturday morning. It was the same call I had received before ... about Jay, about Anthony, about Paul, about Mark ... about too many people that I once called "friend." But despite having heard the very same message before, more times than I would like to count, I still wasn't prepared for the news. Mike had died from AIDS.

Throughout that day, I kept waiting for the world to stop spinning. I waited for the people to stay inside their homes, for the sun to halt on its lazy path through the cloudless sky. And when I went out with friends that evening to the same places where I once saw Mike and his partner, Jay, I waited for the music to stop playing, for the people to stop dancing, for the lights to stop spinning. But although life on this earth ended for Mike some time before dawn, it continued for the rest of us. People still laughed. People still loved. And the sun still set on yet another day.

As I tried to put myself in Mike's place, I was made a little uneasy. Think about it: Since all of us live in our own separate worlds, never experiencing life through the senses of anyone but ourselves, it's tough to picture a world without us in it. It's sort of like the old riddle: "If a tree falls in the woods with no one there to hear it, does it still make a sound?" When we're not here to experience the joys and sorrows of living on this earth, will life continue without us?

I know, of course, that the answer to both riddles is "yes," and that's what scares me. After all, I've got the same virus that eventually took Mike's life, and it's possible that the sun will rise one day in the next decade or so on a world without me in it. For someone who -- quite frankly -- has never been accused of being overly modest, the thought of life on this earth continuing without me is humbling ... and a little frightening.

I think there's an egocentric child in many of us who likes to think that the world exists to serve its needs and desires. That same child can't fathom how the world could survive without it. At the very least, we would like to believe that the world will be a different place once we are gone ... or that the people living here will pause for a moment at our passing. In reality, however, time does not afford this world the luxury of waiting for most people. In the entire scheme of things, each of us is just one among billions -- a single grain of sand in a fathomless dessert.

Yet, even this knowledge doesn't stop us from trying to find our piece of the eternal. Each of us -- in his or her own way -- strives for that elusive concept known as immortality. Whether it's through religion, through having children, or through acts of heroism designed to stencil our names in the annals of history, we all attempt to make a lasting mark on this world or to gain entry into an afterlife -- be it in some spiritual heaven, or in the memories of mankind. The thought of a world bereft of our experiences, empty of any sign that we once treaded upon its soil, is too much for many of us to bear.

I'll be the first to admit that the thought is overwhelming to me. Maybe that's why I've always striven to be the center of attention. In law school, I'm pegged as a "gunner," volunteering my thoughts, even when they might be better left unspoken. On campus, I'm known as an activist, sometimes stirring the waters, even when a little calm is called for. In my family, I threw temper tantrums as a child, giving my mother grief whenever things didn't go my way. Perhaps all of this has been my effort to leave a lasting mark when I'm gone. For better or worse, I want to be noticed. I want to be remembered. I want the world to pause at my passing.

Recently, however, I've begun to realize just how immature and selfish this concept of immortality is. As I journey down the treacherous road toward AIDS, "making my mark" has become less important than making friends. As more and more people that I love die from the disease that threatens me, I'm beginning to think that the eternity I'm seeking might be found in the impressions I leave on those people who love and care for me the most, rather than in the number of times my name appears in print.

After all, when I think back about how strong Mike was in his long struggle with AIDS, I could care less that he wasn't an activist. I could care less that he didn't do talk shows or write a weekly column. All I care about now is the memories Mike left with me. As long as I live, as long as those people touched by Mike live, he will live. He'll be remembered forever as a fighter, as a friend. Perhaps that's the immortality I should be seeking.

Old habits die hard, however, and that might be why I decided to write this column. Despite my new-found understanding of the eternal, it still comforts my wounded ego to know that my thoughts will be recorded somewhere after I make my exit -- even if it is in a dusty filing cabinet in a back office of The Daily Tar Heel.

Of course, that's not the only reason I'm writing. In the weeks that come, I hope to share with you the insight that comes with facing a life-threatening illness. I hope to open your eyes to the small miracles that occur every day. I hope to help remember -- and honor -- the passing of people like Mike.

Although I may stray on occasion, I would like to avoid being moralistic or preachy. I would like to discuss issues that transcend religion or partisan politics. I'd like to discuss living and the roadblocks all of us face as we travel down the road to eternity. After all, no matter what our backgrounds or beliefs, it is a road that we travel together. I'll just try to make it my job to point out a few of the landmarks along the way.

Doug Ferguson is a third-year student in the School of Law at the University of North Carolina and a member of the Human Rights Campaign Fund Board of Governors. His columns initially appeared weekly in the Daily Tar Heel, and are appearing in Oasis in their original, chronological order.
General information: Jeff Walsh
Design and HTML: Jase Pittman-Wells
©1996 Oasis. All Rights Reserved.