I watched nine people die this year. Nine people who weren't news stories or dots connected by degrees of separation. Nine people who weren't just friends of friends of friends. They were people I loved. People who were a very real and profound part of my everyday life, some who had been for years, some who were my own blood.
A 17-year old drummer.
A 29-year old stay-at-home dad.
A 22-year old nursing student.
A 26-year old marathon runner.
A 31-year old artist.
An 82-year old veteran.
A 45-year old former model and mother.
A 28-year old writer.
A 42-year old oncologist.
I feel so little sorrow about it, which should concern me. And in many ways I know I should be concerned about the fact that I feel so little sorrow in this very moment or that I am able to get out of bed every morning and continue to attack every new day as if it was just another day.
As if these nine people had never come and gone.
But it is another day. And those people did come and go.
And the shape of my heart is not the same as it was before I knew them.
Which is precisely why I'm not concerned.
What was different about this year was that I was present in a way I had never been before.
I paid attention.
I looked for the beauty instead of mourning what seemed to be its obvious absence.
In the past I had only seen the darkness in death.
I only felt the missing shapes and had only seen the shadows.
But I started noticing a pattern when a very close friend, only 24-years old, died after a long fight with her cancer.
What I noticed in her eyes in her final few days was the same thing I had seen in my father's eyes right before he died.
The same thing I had seen in my own eyes when I was 28-years old and fighting for my own life, trying to upend a doctor's predicted expiration date of "three months at best."
An odd kind of resignation that felt like the opposite of resignation.
A kind of fearlessness I have never once seen on the face of someone very much healthy and alive.
I'm not a religious man in any way nor am I an atheist. And I have always turned away from people who offer up their silver lining mini-sermons, no matter how well-intentioned.
He's in a better place now.
She's not suffering anymore.
He's with the people he loves.
I get it. And I don't disagree.
It would be foolish to disagree with the unknown.
So I just embrace what I know instead.
And what I know is this:
Reality is what is. And what is--even at its most excruciating--is inexplicably and infinitely beautiful.
When I really examine the entirety of my own life, I see hints of this light most often in my most glorious mistakes.
I see it in my failed attempts to both love and to be loved.
I see it in divorces and in lost jobs.
I see it in the screams and I see it in the silence.
And I see it most acutely on the days when the simple numbness of not knowing how to get through another day is the only fuel I have to actually get me through it.
Because it is there.
A tiny infinity that often seems to dim in moments I most need to see it.
And it always feels like it's the first thing to play hide-and-seek with me when I am most terrified.
And this year, I got to witness nine people find it after lifetimes of directionless searching.
I got to witness them find it where it always was all along.
Where it is for all of us.
In this moment.
I could choose to drown in the collective weight of these absences from my life. Many people do just that with loss of all kinds. And that's okay.
It's so human and it's so natural. But I know that such a cement never dries.
And I know I can make a different choice at any moment.
I can choose to stand back up.
I often hear people describe those who fight their way through disease and illness as courageous. And I agree. But in my own struggles with four different forms of cancer I have found that courage is often simply this: a profound lack of options.
For me, it's more about letting go and not fighting what is.
It's about knowing that the light I need is not one I have to seek, but one that is burning bright right there in the center of my chest.
That doesn't mean that the struggle to survive is not brutal and exhausting and capable of bringing the strongest human beings to their knees.
I think we all know it's often all of those things.
But whether you are the person preparing for the journey into the unknown or one of the ones left to watch the dust cling to the air where that person once stood, it's important to remember what I know from having been on both sides of that itinerary:
All of this.
No matter how cleverly adorned or disguised.
This I know.