The burden of survival in the shadow of extraordinary people

The burden of survival in the shadow of extraordinary people
"Crash Landing," by Alex. Creative Commons License, Some Rights Reserved.

I was idly reading People magazine about a little girl who was the sole survivor of an airplane crash. In the sidebar were photographs of two other kids who were the sole survivors of airplane crashes. One of them, a young man, said, “I live every day to honor my father.”

And I felt such overwhelming grief for him. I don’t know anything about his father, whether he was ordinary or extraordinary, but for the boy’s sake I hope he was ordinary. What a burden to wake up every day and make choices that honor your father, a man you can’t possibly know from the inside out, a man who for many of us is above it all and seems stronger and more successful than he could possibly be in reality.

Cancer, plane crashes, and other traumas throw down the gauntlet for survivors. It seems like the common theme, especially among those who survive catastrophic events, is that “there must be a purpose for my life.” I hear these survivors ask, “Why me? Why did I live and my brother didn’t?”

It must be so much harder when an extraordinary person dies, like my friend Mary Kay. She was no average or ordinary woman. She was special, a gift to her family and the people she worked with. Now, I’d like to think that we’re all special, but, truly, there aren’t many of us like Mary Kay.

I can rationalize all of this, wrap my intellect around it. If there’s a purpose for our lives, it existed before the plane crashed. If we feel obligated to live to the standard of our elders after their deaths, then the obligation was there all along.

It’s the context that slams it home and makes it hard to wrap my heart around it. Everyone else in the family was killed, but not one little girl. The universe seems to be pointing a huge finger. “YOU. I want you.” Because why else would the universe just throw away all the others and leave behind one second grader?

When I think about Mary Kay, I don’t think “why her?” Of course she didn’t deserve to die of pancreatic cancer, but I’ve yet to meet someone who I think does deserve to. Even for those who are immoral and hateful and selfish, it’s hard for me to think they deserve cancer. Not to mention the fact that she never asked, "Why?" She always accepted the answer. “You’re just one of the people who gets pancreatic cancer.”

Sometimes I’m tempted to ask, “Why me?” Why did I end up with a low stage cancer that has responded beautifully to treatment? But I don’t go there very often because I really don’t like any of the possibilities. To think that there’s a “purpose” for my life seems a heavy burden. Especially today when all I’ve wanted to do is stay in bed, read online news and keep the wind at a distance under my warm covers.

I can’t live up to the standard set by my friend Mary Kay. I am not her. For better or worse, I’m ordinary. I’m just me, living out in the world, weaving among the shadows left by extraordinary people.

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Filed under: Personal Essays

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