Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Good Death

“Always after a defeat and a respite, the Shadow takes another shape and grows again.”
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

— J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

I was far away, across an ocean, on September 11, 2001. I could do nothing but look on in horror and pity as my adopted city and my old haunts burned and choked with the smell of crumbled buildings and smoldering flesh. My friends and acquaintances—some, former neighbors who lived within the topple radius of the towers in Battery Park City—all survived. A college classmate who worked above the 100th floor in one of the towers overslept that morning and never made it to work. They were lucky. They all have memories of those horrible days and weeks afterward, when they struggled to pull their lives together. Those who could, left the city. Some never returned.

In contrast, my memories of that day are remote and uninteresting. A client visit planned that morning was cancelled because the CFO got sick. My first inkling that something was happening came when a colleague walked into my office and told me Bloomberg was reporting a small plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Later, I wandered down to the trading floor to watch the two towers—burning, but as yet still standing—smoke on the huge TV monitors. I listened in silence as my European colleagues talked about the tragedy in hushed, uncomprehending tones. I listened to them speculate how many hundreds had died, while keeping to myself the half-remembered knowledge that tens of thousands of people passed through those buildings and the surrounding office, transport, and shopping complex every day. I went home.

* * *

Later, of course, the stories and pictures trickled out. Of the many I read, one stuck with me: James Stewart's February 2002 profile of Rick Rescorla, the head of security for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter at the World Trade Center. Rick was the guy who led the evacuation of 2,700 MSDW employees out of the south tower, in defiance of initial Port Authority orders to stay put. Rick was the guy who cheered and cajoled his frightened colleagues down the stairs with a bullhorn, singing America the Beautiful and Cornish battle songs all the while. Rick was the guy who then turned around and, taking his deputies with him to check for stragglers and injured, went back up into the building.

“What’s really difficult for me is that I know he had a choice,” Susan says. “He chose to go back in there. I know he would never have left until everyone was safe, until his mission was accomplished. That was his nature. That was the man I loved. So I can understand why he went back. What I can’t understand is why I was left behind.”

Dan Hill says that Susan will understand someday, as he does. “What she doesn’t understand is that she knew him for four or five years. She knew a sixty-two-year-old man with cancer. I knew him as a hundred-and-eighty-pound, six-foot-one piece of human machinery that would not quit, that did not know defeat, that would not back off one inch. In the middle of the greatest battle of Vietnam, he was singing to the troops, saying we’re going to rip them a new asshole, when everyone else was worrying about dying. If he had come out of that building and someone died who he hadn’t tried to save, he would have had to commit suicide.

“I’ve tried to tell Susan this, in a way, but she’s not ready yet for the truth. In the next weeks or months, I’ll get her down here, and we’ll take a walk along the ocean, and I’ll explain these things. You see, for Rick Rescorla, this was a natural death. People like Rick, they don’t die old men. They aren’t destined for that and it isn’t right for them to do so. It just isn’t right, by God, for them to become feeble, old, and helpless sons of bitches. There are certain men born in this world, and they’re supposed to die setting an example for the rest of the weak bastards we’re surrounded with.”

I'd like to think Rick Rescorla died the way he would have chosen to die: moving forward, fulfilling his duty, trying to protect the people entrusted to his care. Surely, given his character, that must have been easier to confront than a long decline into sickness and debility. Of course, no-one wishes death on anyone, but it is a blessing to be offered a choice sometimes. Not all of us are offered a choice.

But all of us can choose how we confront it.

* * *

No matter how it comes, you cannot triumph against Death; that is a given. But how will you face your inevitable defeat? What will you make of it?

What legacy will you leave behind?

“By my troth, I care not; a man can die but once; we owe God a death. I'll ne’er bear a base mind: an’t be my destiny, so; an’t be not, so. No man’s too good to serve’s prince; and let it go which way it will, he that dies this year is quit for the next.”

— William Shakespeare, The Second Part of King Henry the Fourth

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