Many years ago, I watched someone die from complications due to AIDS. He was a family member, and it was hard. Very, very hard. A few months later, I was invited to take part in a local AIDS walk, along with other family and friends. We arranged for David's name to be added to their list (and if that confuses you, yes, my son is partly named for his uncle) during the memorial reading of the names. We got to the venue bright and early, and the reading of the names was well underway. It actually took a few hours to get through the list, and we had no idea where David's name would fall. We stood and listened for a bit, but before long, the names just seemed like one endless stream - unending, unyielding, unbelievable. First name, last name, move along. Then suddenly, a name was read and my heart skipped a beat.
There amid the endless string of names, was Aunt Shelly.
I didn't know Aunt Shelly. I only know that by giving her a designation - someone's aunt - she suddenly had a lifetime of meaning. She was somebody's aunt. Somebody's sister. Somebody's mother, maybe. Somebody's wife possibly. Somebody's friend. And all those somebodies were mourning, as I mourned, another life ending entirely too soon.
I experienced the same phenomenon a few years later, when I took my father, a purple heart veteran of the Viet Nam war, to the Memorial in Washington DC. That wall is overwhelming in the sheer enormity of the names and the sacrifices that are tied to those names. I watched his eyes move over the wall, his jaw set in an angry line as he stared silently at name after name. I asked him if he knew anyone on the wall. He gave me the name of his sergeant, killed in the same mortar attack that wounded my father. I located the name in the directory and found the panel.
And there he was. Jim. Jim was somebody's son. Maybe somebody's brother. And according to my Dad, Jim was three somebodys' father. As I stood there, holding my father's hand, looking up at that wall, my heart ached for all of them. My father made it home. His hand was warm in mine.Their father was now a name on a cold slab of granite.
These thoughts turn in my head because of the article I read this morning, about the nightclub fire in Brazil that claimed 231 lives this past weekend. The first responders spoke of hundreds of cellphones, ringing, chirping, playing music as friends and family desperately tried to reach those who'd perished in the fire. It's a jarring thing to hear, reminding you instantly that these people all had families and people who loved them. People who will surely mourn them with an anguish we don't even want to imagine.
Two hundred and thirty one is a big number. So big, it can easily be impersonal. A tragedy, certainly, but not the kind that emotionally eviscerates you since it's far from home and happening to somebody else. We feel safer thinking about it that way.
At least, until someone's Aunt Shelly reminds us that we're all somebody else.