When I was young I dismissed those who’d never had a cloudy day as though they were charming puppies. There is a certain affinity I’ve always had for those whose lives have not been perfect, for it somehow makes them richer for what they lack. It was years before I realized that perfection is but an illusion, and that often those whose lives seem the most charmed are the ones who suffer the most—they just hide it well.
We are all, I suppose, drawn to the wronged, the vulnerable, especially when they are able to find purchase in the flawed world dealt to them, to brush off the darkness with levity and beauty.
I was listening to the tributes to David Rakoff today, impressed by the depth and breadth of sadness shared over his death. Everyone, it seems, felt that they knew him, or wished desperately that they had. He reached them at a very personal level, with his soothing voice, his clever and at times acerbic wit, the way his words danced about. He saw the world with dark yet often achingly beautiful honesty and humility, and above all with humor, even at the end. While he admitted in an interview that he may well have been beloved by all yet loved by none, I hope he did realize how much he was loved, his friendships too numerous to count in an age when we like so much to do so.
“Central to living a life that is good, is a life that’s forgiving. We’re creatures of contact, regardless of whether we kiss or we wound. Still, we must come together. Though it may spell destruction, we still ask for more, since it beats staying dry—but, so lonely on shore. So we make ourselves open while knowing full well it’s essentially saying, “Please, come pierce my shell.” (Half Empty)
A cancer survivor and, eventually, victim of the very treatment that cured the initial tumor twenty years earlier, Rakoff found the generosity to reassure us all not only with his words but with a dance (now spread across the internet like a curtain of the finest silk) which he performed without the arm he’d lost to his cancer. While he mourned his loss of symmetry, he moved with such grace and eloquence that perhaps he too forgot that it was not there, balancing with his body the same joys and sorrows, strengths and weaknesses he did with his words.
When I chose to stop my daily commute to the wilds of Manhattan in search of more time with my family, I would often pause as I turned down my street, noting the car of a woman with whom I regularly took the bus into the city. Her black volvo sat like a loyal dog from the early morning hours until the darkness of late evening, patiently awaiting her return from work. Each time I saw it I was struck by its stillness, by how many minutes and hours I had lived while “the volvo lady” (that’s what I called her, in silence, having forgotten her name) was at her desk, or in a meeting, or on the bus. I felt so fortunate, as though I’d been given a gift.
A couple of years ago a woman I knew not well enough to be privy to her secrets but enough to share warm smiles and greetings each time we met, died suddenly, leaving a husband and three children bereft and without the anchor that she was to all of their lives. Every time I pass her house I am struck by the fact that she is still dead. No matter what happens, she is still gone. And I am here, having lived and laughed and shared so much life.
Perhaps part of Rakoff’s genius was his understanding of not only the fragility of life but also the fervency with which we must live it.
“It did cross my mind that my fervent will to live — and it is fervent, and it is still in operation, and it is still, in fact, the area of my life of which I’m most optimistic, and I think that people really do tend to be hugely optimistic about their own chances of survival going from day to day — but it did cross my mind and it remains in my mind that all of the people that I know who did die, they didn’t die because they want to live less than I do. They didn’t die because their desire to continue existing was found wanting in ways that my own is somehow better. And that is tremendously instructive to me.”