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Appraising life: Contemplating worth of life in a world that forgets

My co-worker’s mother died last Saturday. She was 87.

In the bakery where I work, I probably saw this woman five times at most. I never had a conversation with her. If I spoke to her at all, it was to inform her that Mary, her daughter, wasn’t working that day.

But I remember Mary’s mother with her grocery cart. Like much of our clientele, she used the cart as a provisional mobility walker and roamed store aisles with a slow and deliberate,  grandmotherly gait.

I didn’t know it then, but the last afternoon I saw her pass my corner, she was stricken with cancer.

Every time I hear of someone’s passing, my mind gravitates to the exact moment of death. That day that finally completes a life — what is that like? I can’t skim the obituary without marveling at the uniformity of nature. A routine day is always someone else’s last.

The day before Mary’s mother died, I spent an evening downtown with two friends. After sharing a pitcher, one of them leaned back in the booth.

“I don’t put too much stock in life,” he said.

“Why not?” I asked.

He began to count his fingers.

“I’ve been all over the world,” he said. “I’ve slept with beautiful women. I’ve had a good life.”

Over the past year, I’ve also weighed my own life with relative flippancy. Unlike my friend, I tend to judge its market value against common benchmarks and their likelihood of fruition. Maybe it’s a spell of undergraduate angst, but often it doesn’t feel worth the long-term investment.

Perhaps only others can accurately appraise a life.

Last Monday, in the whirl of a mid-afternoon rush at work, I noticed a narrow newspaper clipping nestled between bread orders: The obituary entry of a middle-aged man. I asked Beverly, my supervisor, about it.

The man had apparently been a regular customer of the store for many years. Most of the staff loved him. I studied the black-and-white thumbnail but only saw a smiling face I never knew.

“He committed suicide,” said Beverly. “He suffered from depression.”

I never know what to say. “Wow,” I said.

As always, my thoughts linger on the image of breathing and the pair of lungs that gently whiffle us to our final hours. In, out. Less than a week ago, Mary’s mother and this man breathed like everyone else. In, out. And yet, time hardly acknowledges a withering breath. The world forgets. In, and then out.



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