The Compartments of Death and Dying

As a 22 year old sitting in my first day of Navy flight school in Pensacola, Florida I remember being mildly put off by the instructor when he told each of us to look at the person on our right and left. He remarked that one of these colleagues had a pretty good chance of being killed in the career we had chosen. He was wrong. In my case, classmates on both sides, Hal Hawkins and Lou Eames, were to die in plane crashes within five years.

Naively, I chose an inherently dangerous career. But what did I know; I was bullet-proof, or so I believed, when I signed on the dotted line. Over the course of a 20 year career I lost count of the number of friends and acquaintances who joined Lou and Hal. My guess is that the number may be in the range of 25-30 guys whose lives ended abruptly before they ever reached age 35. This is all to say that I was forced at an early age by means of emotional survival, to view death in a different way than most. Death developed its own compartment, surprisingly void of emotion and unfortunately, I became comfortable over the years with how the door opened and closed.

When I was young I viewed tomorrow as a given for me but a gift for everyone else. Pretty immature now that I think about it.  Maybe it was simply a cop out that once allowed me to make someone else’s death easier to swallow. From that perspective, I eliminated thoughts of ‘what could have been’ and focused on ‘’what was’.  In the past this enabled me to remain stoic and detached while truly celebrating the life that was well lived. It seemed to work well until I came face to face with my friends’ wife and children at the funeral service. Even then it was a ‘stiff upper lip’ type of thing.

It would seem inconsistent then that my single most paralyzing fear in life is that I will outlive any of my children. In my mind however, it is perfectly consistent as there are personal and business compartments that have specific emotional rules for such events.

This past week an old friend and good ‘brother’ lost a fierce battle to a disease I had never heard of but am told that it’s anonymity may be short lived. CJD, or Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is a horrible medical enigma that affects about one person per million. It is short-lived, incurable, and is fatal. It is a variant of Mad Cow Disease and apparently makes for good television because Law and Order, Bones, House, X-Files, and 24 have all devoted episodes to it. In this case, it wasn’t TV, there are no god complex doctors, and the episode didn’t end with ’to be continued’. My friend’s death sentence was given by his physician 2 weeks ago. He and his wife understood the prognosis fully. They have four boys under ten years old.

I don’t have a compartment for this. While this was a tragic event of epic proportion in the personal compartment, I am disturbed at how emotionally disconnected I feel. None of it is right. Maybe its time I get rid of the compartmentalization crutch and grieve the absence of my friends’ tomorrows like everyone else does, in addition to celebrating his past.

In the end, my friend had no fear of the inevitable and his impending mortality. He was at peace on all fronts. In most things, but especially in those spiritual, we were of like mind. He was the kind of man that was incapable of having enemies. He lived life quietly yet fully, produced for society, cared about and for others, and was a husband and father to be emulated.

I hope to be able to face death as bravely as he and his wife Pam did. Well done my friend, Scott Hamilton.

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