Death, Be Not Proud

I’m heartsick today because a friend has died. More heartsick because she’d just celebrated her 35th birthday a couple of weeks ago. It isn’t fair that the young have to die. It’s a grievous transgression of the natural order of things when a parent has to bury their child. It’s backwards. Our children are supposed to bury us.

Let me tell you a bit about my friend. Her name is Rachel Green. Rachel worked in the graphics department for many years at our local Staples store. That’s where we met. I stopped in from time to time to get placards or posters made to use at author events. I’m an obsessive-compulsive  perfectionist by nature and, quite often, my ship of patience has sailed when I finally get around to asking for help. I’m lousy at computer-ish stuff. I know what I want, but not only do I find it impossible to do on my own, I sometimes have trouble articulating how I want the image in my head to appear on a poster or some other form of visual media. During those times, I’m at the mercy of those who do understand these things, who are mostly young folk like Rachel.

All of us know how frustrating it can be walking into a “big box” store and finding someone to help us. And finding someone to help us who’s as eager to assist us as if we are their very first customer is a rare bird, indeed. Rachel was that rare bird. It can be especially intimidating when having to deal with techy types when your own technical ability doesn’t extend much farther than successfully booting up your computer and not losing everything you wrote the night before. Sometimes they’re hard to communicate with because we speak in different languages. I’m a wordsmith, not a mechanic or a plumber or electrician or a graphics artist. But Rachel always put me at ease.

Rachel was an artiste at graphics. But more importantly, she had the innate ability to listen to what you said and translate all that muddle into the precise results you wanted. It’s like she could peer into your mind as you struggled to put into words how you wanted the finished product to look and say, “Ah, I know exactly what to do, and I think you’ll really love it. And if you have time to hang around with me a few minutes, we can tweak it until it’s perfect.” That’s always what I got from Rachel when I went into the Staples graphics department and sheepishly tried to communicate my needs, which, as usual, I’d put off until the eleventh hour. But when Rachel was on duty, I knew that it’d be a simple task and the project would sparkle once she put the finishing touches on it. I knew that it’d be money well spent and the turnaround time would be rapid.

But aside from all that, Rachel was a delightful person. She was a lot like me in that she never met a stranger and always enjoyed talking to people. Rachel and I became friends through her work at Staples. Then we became Facebook friends. Then we became regular friends. And though we didn’t know each other very long or see each other often, I considered her to be a good friend. She was a keenly intelligent young woman, inquisitive about everything and could converse with you about anything while she worked. She loved anything tie-dyed, as do I, and always was delighted when I’d walk in wearing one of my many tie-dyed tee shirts. She had a big smile, a merry laugh and a fillet knife-sharp wit.

Rachel suffered from an autoimmune disease call lupus. Like most autoimmune diseases, it’s miserable and plays havoc, not only with your physical wellbeing, but your psyche and emotional wellbeing. The disease is painful and drags down those who have it. The array of medications a lupus victim has to take to keep the disease at bay can also wreak havoc of their own. In Rachel’s case, one of her meds eroded the bone in her hip, necessitating extensive surgery and therapy earlier this year. I was a Navy medic and surgeon’s assistant. I specialized in orthopedic surgery. When Rachel told me what was going on, I knew right away and we were able to talk about it because I understood the kind of procedure she needed to have done and was able to answer questions for her and talk about the surgery, itself. We stayed in touch, via Facebook messenger and texting, during her recovery.

Rachel was a happy warrior. She always had a big, infectious smile and never complained, even on those occasions when I could see the limp in her gait and knew how much she must be hurting. A good attitude and good cheer is one of the best medicines, they say, and Rachel had that in abundance. The thoughts of going to Staples’ graphics department and not seeing Rachel behind the counter is going to be hard. I’m going to miss her a lot. She’ll be impossible to replace.

The 17th-century metaphysical poet, John Donne wrote a poem called, “Death, Be Not Proud.” The poem, addressed to death itself, mocks it for its arrogance and pride in believing that it’s the final victor, when, in reality, it cannot kill us, but instead, sets our soul free from our weary bodies so that we can have eternal rest. In 1949, an author named John Gunther used the title for the memoir about his son, Johnny, who died of a brain tumor at 17-years-old. It was a tribute to his son’s courage, wit, friendliness and enduring patience. When I sat down to do this blog in Rachel’s memory, the poem, and the book, immediately came to mind.

See you on the other side, my tie-dyed friend. I dedicate one of my favorite poems to your memory.

“Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,

Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,

And soonest our best men with thee do go,

Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.

Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,

And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,

And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well

And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?

One short sleep past, we wake eternally

And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.”