On the Passing of a Colleague

I read on Facebook today that a professional colleague had died a few days ago. She was a bright, warm person with whom I had interacted when I was actively involved in software engineering research, and through professional organizations (e.g., the CRA Board of Directors). It appears that she was gravely ill but didn’t tell many people. Thus, her passing was a surprise to many. It is a sad loss, for she brought some light to us all. I had not seen her in years, but her passing diminishes my world no less than had I seen her a few days ago.

Reflecting, death of someone we know is perhaps more often a surprise than not. An accident, a crime, an acute medical incident…. Seldom do any of us get to pick the time and manner of our deaths, except perhaps the self-destructive and rare cases of heroism. Each of us eventually passes. Each of us is dying right now — that is an inherent part of living that we should accept. Some people fear death, and that means they fear life. To really live in the here and now is what gives meaning, and what causes others to miss us when we’re gone.

I’ve written about a recent family loss here. I have written the obituaries of several icons in security who I was privileged to know, such as Gene Schultz, Jim Anderson and Harold Highland. Someday, perhaps someone will write mine (although I have provided a perfectly good pre-written one). It is never possible to capture the full essence of someone in one of these short collections of mere words, although we try by recounting some list of recognitions or telling an anecdote about an interaction. With that we may express our sense of loss, and perhaps, respect, affection, and sometimes awe; simply listing biographical facts is not satisfying as a way to commemorate a full life.

What we note about people is what they accomplished, sometimes against great odds. Yes, there are those around them who loved them, and will love them still, but for the majority of us, we look back at the things great and small that were done for others…and for us. Do we remember the person as someone who made the lives of others better? Did they provide warmth and kindness, great and small? Did they help guide us on a better path? It is those things that stand out for all of us. The icon of those who leave our lives is that of what they stood for — and acted on.

For those of us left behind, it should be a reminder that our own time is limited. Are we using our time as we wish? Are we treating others around us as we really want to? Are we completing those tasks we wish to be finished, or are we spending time on things that really don’t matter? There’s a great commercial from Thailand that is making the rounds of some of the social media sites now that is touching and instructive. It nicely conveys the message that what we do now can make a difference in the future, sometimes even for ourselves. Others remember us for what we do, and that is really who we are.

Last week, a former student visited me. He brought me a bottle of expensive, limited edition Irish whiskey as a gift. I was not expecting anything, and I was really quite touched at the thoughtfulness. I made some comment about saving it for a day when he could visit with some time free to share a glass or two from it. His reply was something along the lines of “We don’t know what days we have; Don’t leave a bottle uncorked and undecanted for one that may not come.” I can appreciate that wisdom.

So, I have decanted a dram. A toast to Mary Jean, and to others who have made a difference. We miss them because they added value to life and to the world around us. And another toast to those who are adding value to our worlds right now who are still here. Let’s remember to tell them that while we can, not after they are gone and are deaf to this world. To celebrate that principle is a last gift from Mary Jean and all the others who have passed on: appreciate the here and now while we can.

And then let’s get on with making the world a better place for those who follow after us — while leaving no bottle on the shelf, unopened, in the process. Consider this quote by George Bernard Shaw: “Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got a hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it onto future generations.” (I have a few other quotes related to this in a post from 4 years ago that may be of interest.)

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