Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Quiet Echoes When Lives That Brush Against Us End

When I was in high school, I had one of those memorable teachers who made an indelible mark upon my life. Her name was Maureen O'Donnell. She did much more than brush against my life. But this post is not about her. Not really. It is about one of her former students, John Donahue. John was someone I knew of, but did not know well. She spoke highly of him, as if he was one of her children. That's how she treated all of us. I looked up to John. When John would come to visit Mrs. O'Donnell in the classroom, she would welcome him with open arms, and we knew that's how we would be welcomed, too, when our time came to be alumni who visited her. He was a sign of the continuity of the relationship, a hopeful reminder of the future.

When I was in college, Mrs. O'Donnell passed away. She was 58. Her former student, John Donahue, stepped in to the great gaping hole left by her absence to teach her class. I remember my heart flooding with relief when I learned that a member of the family, the family of her students, would be shouldering this daunting task. I was so grateful to John for that. He became, then, a symbol of both the future and past, once again representing the continuity of the bond Mrs. O'Donnell had created among her students.

A few weeks ago, John Donahue passed away, too soon, from the same cancer that took Mrs. O'Donnell. Although I did not know him well, his death has left strange and quiet echoes in my heart because he brushed my life. How often this seems to happen. When someone we only knew tangentially, whose existence in some way impacted us, though not deeply, dies, there is ... a something. A moment, like the moment of silent reverberation after a sudden loud sound in a deep and quiet wood, a moment of acknowledgment, where we stop and think and struggle to name the feeling in us that is not grief but is not indifference. This life that ended may only have nudged our course by the most infinitessimal of magnitudes. But science tells us that even the tiniest nudge can amplify over time.

This feeling is a deeper, more intimate shade of the sentiment expressed in the famous poem by John Donne, "No Man Is An Island," whose most well-known line ("Ask not for whom the bell tolls") has taken on an ominous connotation that does not do its context justice:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were.
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because i am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.