My ancestor John Donne wrote in Meditation 17 "Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls, the bell tolls for thee."
I was born in a century marked by a great deal of death caused by totalitarian governments. The Nazis even set up camps with the express purpose of killing people. Millions of people -- especially Jews and their relatives -- were executed at these nightmarish locations. Communists -- especially Russian and Chinese ones -- killed even more than the Nazis.
The Nazi murderers touched my own family in personal ways. My father's youngest brother Dick was killed in the closing days of World War II. Dad missed him until the day he died. Mom's brother Clarence was wounded badly twice during that same war. When he came home, people said to him "Guess you will be getting married now." He replied "No -- I want a quiet life." We are the poorer for his quite understandable decision.
Deaths of people I have known have touched me in many ways. When I heard that Diane, a very cheery cheerleader from my high school days, had committed suicide, I plunged into depression for a number of days myself. I even spent one night -- the 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon -- sitting at home alone drinking heavily and crying. Janet Kofoed, an artist friend I know via SF circles, got me out of that mood when I phoned her. She scolded me -- the only time she's ever done that to me -- with the words "You're a really decent, caring guy. What you're going through is normal!"
I also think about other kinds of deaths. Less than a week ago St. Mark's had a funeral for David Evelyn. He was a good man I got to know through the arts. He was only 69 -- far too young to pass away. I remember Vickie Street. Her loss touched our entire community. She was only in her 50s -- also too young.
Dad passed away at age 61 back in 1974. That tragedy turned me into a runner and swimmer. One of the proudest days of my life was when I finished the Marine Corps Marathon in 1996. I still miss Dad. I've learned over the years how unusual and how good, no, wonderful, my parents were. I remember Dad and the Scouts. If it weren't for the Scouts, I would not have become the photographer I am today. I also remember Mom insisting I get the cooking merit badge. As a result of that, I became a terrific cook. My favorite dish today is chicken with mornay sauce. Why? It was the main course at the last dinner I was able to prepare for Mom. Two months later she passed away. I remember her last smile and hug. I will until the day I die. I miss Mom terribly.
When Aunt Kay passed away, I wrote to Uncle Don, quoting our ancestor John Donne like I did at the beginning of this essay. I told Uncle Don that what John Donne wrote spoke for me and my feelings for Aunt Kay -- and indeed our whole family. Uncle Don was moved to tears. He's now passed away as well. I wish he were still here. My cousins and I are the oldest surviving Divines of our line. I wonder if I will finally marry and have a child. If I don't, that will be the end of our part of the line.
Death, whether the personal or that in the larger world, affects me greatly. I think that's one of the things I have in common with my famous ancestor.