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Casting a cold eye on life and death as young man dies

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I was in class this morning, screening a documentary about the Iraq WikiLeaks files for my journalism students when I received the news via text.

Our friend’s younger brother had lost his life overnight. He had been fighting cancer for the past year and a half, and after having two operations to remove tumors in his jaw and neck, subsequently receiving the news that the cancer had spread to his brain in the form of several inoperable brain tumors, as well as suffering a recent stroke, he lost his battle.

While watching images of Iraqi widows, and processing the contents of a simple text message, I couldn’t help but wonder just how cruel the world really has the audacity to be sometimes.

He was 23 years old. A young man from Newcastle West, Co. Limerick, and part of a group of friends with whom my sister, my cousin and I have spent a lot of time since we moved to Ireland.

When I first met him, he was 21 years old. The kind of age I’d often describe as, “just a baby, after all.” And he was.

How cruel a destiny; just when he was hardly yet a man, he discovered that Fate had conspired to rob him of what it had so mercilessly, and indirectly, promised him up to that point. His future.

The warmth of sunshine upon his skin. Cool, wet blades of grass crunching beneath his bare feet. Waking up in the morning. Going to bed wondering, excitedly, what tomorrow might hold. Seeing loved ones’ eyes scrunch up with merriment after hearing a joke or sharing a story.

All the things that we take for granted in a lifetime.

I remember the first time I met him. It was at the Electric Picnic festival in 2009, and my sister and I, being ever the American stereotypes, had arrived with absolutely all of the wrong supplies. A suitcase with wheels, a selection of high heels, and even, a laptop. No food, and no camping equipment.

I was completely oblivious to the concept of festival-muck and thus showed up in flip flops.

As soon as my sister and I arrived to meet the group of campers, he, being a chatty, easygoing, funny guy, cracked a few jokes as he took stock of my feet – my toes were drenched and covered with brown mud. He then immediately walked me over to a camping-supply stall, told me to pick out a pair of boots, and haggled with the woman in the stall to make sure I got the best deal possible on my Wellingtons.

We had known each other about five minutes.

What is it about a heart that makes it decide to stop beating? One minute, to pump blood and breath into its human carriage, and the next, cease to provide it with the gift of existence? How can someone be there one second, and not the next?

Death, in all its might, in all its ugliness, doesn’t make any sense.

I had planned to ask him, in recent months, if I could interview him on camera. I figured I would capture him on tape telling the story of his life, and have him share any final words he’d like to, perhaps as a last gift to his loved ones. If I couldn’t change his fate, I thought, I could at least make something through which people could remember his lovely presence.

But life got in the way.

Every time I thought I’d make the trip from Dublin to Limerick, something would come up – a family member would stay with me for the weekend, somebody would ask me to do a favor in town, or I’d have to catch up on work I hadn’t finished for a deadline – and I never made it down.

I was so caught up in myself that I missed an opportunity to capture the life of a young boy whose mother would’ve undoubtedly cherished the ability to see his face and hear his voice whenever she missed him, just by turning on a dvd.

When a friend was moving away recently, I offered him a piece of advice. I said that there are some decisions – no matter how quickly they are made, or how trivial they might seem at the time(“I’ll go next week, or the week after that”)– that you just have to live with forever. I’ve never felt my own words burn me with scorn as deeply as they did this morning.

I wish I had made different decisions, and had not neglected to use the tools that I was given to potentially help ease the sufferings of a grieving family.

All I can do with this regret is to try to learn from it; take it as one of life's lessons.

Yet knowledge seems such a hollow achievement in times like these.

I will never get the chance to go back and document his story; and he will never get the chance to tell it.

Some decisions, you just have to live with.

Photo by Rachel King

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