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A reader writes … By Brian McNeece

April 02, 2001

I am on a bicycle admiring brilliant fields of wheat, the skyline of the Cocopah Mountains across the border, a rare field of purple and pink flowers.

A car pulls out of oncoming traffic into my lane to pass another car. I hug the edge of the pavement like a steelworker on a skyscraper girder, concentrating on my view of the road. The car passes, and I thank God for the chance to keep riding because in an instant, my life could be over.

My friend calls me. "Mark Aguilera is dead," he says flatly. Just last week, he visited Mark, a college classmate whose skull had a soft spot where the cranium had been removed in favor of a brain tumor.

As I drive home from a hike in Mexico, a police car blocks the route. A man lies on his back across the broken yellow line surrounded by a sea of shattered glass. The rest of us creep by in our cars and pay homage to the fallen figure. His arms rest with his palms to the sky in his ultimate relaxation, for he is dead on the highway. Nearby sits a fine straw hat as if ready for him to grab it and stroll off. But the hat is drenched in his blood, and he will never reach for it again.

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Last week, I asked my students if they knew the meaning of March 20. None knew. For millennia, the equinox has told the ancient peoples that winter is past and new life will sprout again. On that day, the sun passes the halfway point in its journey to the heights of June. But we are no longer reminded of the cycle of life and death with the changing of the seasons. Even while civilization has gathered more knowledge of the heavens than the ancient ones imagined, the common soul knows less and less about the spinning of this planet and its journey around the sun.

Too bad, because the lessons of spring are many. Christ died and was resurrected during the

springtime. There is no more powerful symbol of renewal and new beginnings than the coming, the death, and the resurrection of the Son of God.

How strangely appropriate that near the equinox, I am surrounded by the ends of lives. Even among my students, several quietly tell me that they must be absent to attend funerals.

It's not easy, this constant reminder that death is ever near. And so we deny. We blithely while away our days with matters of inconsequence, small amusements to occupy ourselves; we allow ourselves to drift with the days.

This morning, after I started writing this piece, I chanced upon a photo in the newspaper of a gorgeous blonde who had recently passed away. Her name was Elizabeth Davies King, a 42-year-old ex-beauty queen with three daughters. She had died of melanoma. In the article above hers, Joel Erik Myers, a 32 year-old med student, looked at me with confident eyes.

Chillingly, he too had recently succumbed to melanoma — the same disease I was diagnosed with two years ago. Why did they have to die so young and not me? Why am I still here? To embroil myself in small annoyances and petty worries?

Not me. I now have a gift. Because of cancer, I can look through the shroud covering the face of the dead man lying on the broken yellow line.

Under the folds of that green cloth, I see my face. Except that face will never see, as I saw last Saturday afternoon, a view of a hundred miles in all directions from the top of a plateau that I had climbed with my own two feet. That face will never marvel, as I still can this day, at the infinite beauty inside the lives of all the people around me.

Death is stalking all of us. I don't write this to pull you down but to raise you up. Death is out there, though we prefer to pretend he'll sleep forever and pass us by. We have an appointment with him. It's an appointment we should not dread.

Last week I asked my students to describe a vivid event in their lives. One had attended the funeral of a young man in the peak of life. She wrote, "His mother had a look of a child who has lost her balloon and is watching it retreat into the sky, knowing that she will never see it again."

What springtime teaches us is that we are all of us that mother — all of us that child — and we also are all of us that balloon. Even as we live, we are drifting away to another land far, far away. With every heartbeat, we need to teach ourselves to enjoy the views.

BRIAN McNeece, an El Centro resident, teaches English at Imperial Valley College.

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