I was first to find her body. I had just walked through an open sliding glass door leading into the backyard of a small two bedroom bungalow in Santa Rosa, California.
I was only 19 years old.
I’d just finished the Fire Academy and was volunteering at a small firehouse two miles south of town. I can’t remember what the call was or why we were the first to arrive. I just remember walking down those back steps into a little covered patio and seeing a woman, maybe in her early 60s, sitting in a chair, slumped over. She had a pool of blood surrounding her white tennis shoes and a small revolver laid just beyond her hand on the ground.
I hadn’t seen real death up close before, and I didn’t know what to do. I was shocked and scared, but more than anything, I was overcome with sadness. I walked back into the house and started looking around at her furnishings. I noticed the dishes in the sink, the books on the shelves and the pictures on her walls. I was trying to get a sense of who she was and why this had happened.
The most vivid memory of that day almost 30 years later was not the body, or the blood or the gun. What still stands out most was the drive back to the firehouse.
Sitting in the engine looking out the window as we drove, I realized the world and everyone in it didn’t skip a beat. I watched a man wheeling his trash to the curb, a lady mowing her lawn, and a police car half concealed at the corner trying to punish someone for driving 35mph in a 25mph zone.
What was wrong with everyone? Didn’t they know what just happened? How can the world keep turning as if nothing important or tragic had taken place?
A few things happened that day.
[One] – I realized how insignificant our individual lives are in the grand scheme of things. The universe doesn’t give a shit. It doesn’t hate us, but it doesn’t love us either. The sun will rise and set tomorrow regardless of whether we’re here to see it or not.
[Two] – Almost no one, including myself, lives with the complete acceptance of how temporary our lives are. Life itself is a terminal disease. We begin dying the day we’re born, and the outcome is inevitable. Some of us have more time than others, but no one escapes the reality of death.
Denial is everywhere; at times it can be ridiculous and annoying. I don’t believe in having some depressed hand-wringing contest about how we’re all going to die every day, but I do believe if we lived each day acknowledging what a gift being alive is, we would make better decisions about how we spend our time and how we treat each other.
Last week I was inspired by Gary Vaynerchuk to do a personal audit of my strengths and weaknesses. Reaching out to my inner circle of friends and family I asked for brutally honest feedback of how they see me. I want to make sure I’m not lying to myself so I can best focus my efforts on my strengths.
I received a consistent piece of feedback from every single person. They all said I have a short fuse with people and have a low tolerance for complaining.
As I thought about why I have such a short fuse with others, memories of this suicide flooded my mind. This particular character trait, good or bad is no doubt tied to that very day 30 years ago when I walked into that backyard and felt death for the first time.
Watching people get upset because their marble counter-top has been delayed for two weeks, or seeing someone write a letter to the editor of my local paper because they don’t think the kale in the organic section of Whole Foods is really organic makes me question humanity.
I’m as guilty as anyone and can easily let my shallow day-to-day reality of life grow into full blown mental emergencies. When I sink to this level of living, I find myself giving precious energy to mind-made catastrophes.
The only thing that really matters in life is the quality of our personal relationships. With that said, yes, I do live in the real world and money, and things can make life fun and enjoyable.
But in the end, our money and possessions won’t detour us from grabbing a little metal chair in our backyard and sitting down with a revolver. But just one intimate relationship may keep us from feeling alone and from pulling that trigger.
I’m probably not going to stop telling people I don’t give a shit about how hot it is, or when the drought will end or the price of gas. This blip of a second on the universal clock we call life will be gone in a flash, and with it will go all of the unnecessary worry and guilt we love to hold on to and eagerly share with everyone around us.
I make better choices, live more enjoyable days and am much closer to the best version of myself when I stop what I’m wrapped up in, and a few times a day simply acknowledge I’m still breathing. This takes work, and I’m trying to get better, but this is my goal everyday.
Humans need relationship; that’s how we’re designed. I need to work harder at creating and nurturing quality relationships in my life, because who knows, by doing so I may just be the person that helps a friend pick up her phone instead of her revolver.