The Meaning of Death (If Any)

Elle Botha

Twelve days. I made it twelve days into 2016 before experiencing the awkward pause on the other end of the line. The heavy silence leading to a nausea that arises as sure as Pavlov’s dog salivated at the bell. These calls about skydiving and BASE jumping fatalities have become familiar. I immediately know what; I await the who, where, and how. No matter how many times I pick up that phone, I don’t get used to it. There are no shortcuts when someone dies. Not if you want to remain fully human on the inside.

I run through the list of people it could be, in order of those I can’t lose right now.

This time it wasn’t my best friend, my brother, or my lover. But Mat was those things to people I love. He was family. He was his mother's son.

And yet, the fatality routine creates a creeping, double-sided sense of complacency and denial that makes me want to scream until the sky breaks open and returns all of my dead friends to earth. I see and hear variations of:

“God, another one?”

“He would have wanted us to party harder. Can’t stop now!”

“This is going to keep happening, so hug each other while you still can.”

Here’s my weakness: I want every death to mean something, and I’m starting to understand that maybe that’s not the way this works. I want every loss to create space for thinking about who we are and what we’re doing with our magical nylon.

But something else is going on. I keep running up against an existential wall because by sheer volume, it’s becoming difficult to honor and meditate on each life.

I accept a certain level of risk that comes with jumping out of airplanes and off cliffs and loving those who do the same. I have lost my closest friends, my teammates, and my soulmate, and I feel compelled to continue. Or perhaps more aptly, none of those losses compelled me to stop.

As a community we are good at healing ourselves by continuing to do the activities that kill our friends. Those who are left after each reaping come together to jump, and occasionally to party our faces off as we celebrate life’s ephemeral beauty, bond as a tribe, and forge on. I do this, too, and mostly it works. But are we treating the symptoms at the expense of trying to cure the disease? 

The first time I witnessed a skydiving fatality years ago, I approached the scene and saw Elle’s leg. Her brand new jumpsuit and sneaker still gleamed on the cleanly severed limb lying in the dry veldt at the Johannesburg Skydiving Club. Her brain was nearby. I don’t bring this up just to be lurid: it taught me something very important. Our bodies are fragile; and we are not our bodies. The person I confided in and who lovingly spoke to her dogs in Afrikaans while she cooked me dinner existed, in my memory at least, separately from the leg and the brain. The body was broken but the memories remained whole, and with them something of the spirit.

What I reject is a virtual mass grave, an abbreviated grief that denies the consequences of our deaths.

These days, Facebook is our superficial bonfire. Screens temporarily fill up with platitudes about a short life well-lived being better than a long and boring life.

What a false choice.