At 6:45pm on Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014, I got an email from my friend Seth Roberts, the pioneering and peerless scientist.
I opened it, saw that it was to be the first of a long awaited column called “Personal Science” for the Observer, where I was then an editor. I assumed it was good–Seth’s work always was–so I marked it as unread and told myself it could wait until Monday.
On that Saturday, less than 72 hours later, Seth collapsed of a fatal heart attack while hiking in Berkeley. It would have been so easy for me to reply and and tell him how happy I was with what he had written. Or how much he’d helped me over the years and how excited I was to be working with him. How hard would it have been to give even the courtesy of acknowledging his email?
But I didn’t. And now I will never get to tell him anything ever again. This man who had mentored me, who had inspired me, who had made me rethink how I did so many things…I had left him on hold and now he was dead.
Of course, I was familiar with the Stoic concept of Memento Mori. In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” Of course, I knew that any of us could go at any moment. Yet there is, as always, a difference between knowing something and knowing it. And there is nothing like losing someone you care about suddenly and unexpectedly to help you understand how fragile and ephemeral life is.
In an interview shortly after the death of the musician David Crosby, Crosby’s bandmate Graham Nash talked about the falling out they never got to resolve. “He had sent me a voicemail saying that he wanted to talk to apologize,” Nash said. “I emailed him back and said, ‘Okay, call me at 11 o’clock tomorrow your time, which is 2 o’clock on the East Coast.’ He never called, and then he was gone.”
You think you can do it tomorrow. You think you have tomorrow.
You very well may not.
The grudges we hold on to. The strange priorities we hold. The nonsense we get bogged down in.
There is a kind of arrogance in it. It takes tomorrow for granted.