Death is one of life’s cruelest lessons

By Leonard Pitts

Torrie was buried on a Friday.

The day was cold and clear and there must have been a couple hundred people packed into the church. Most of the mourners were unbearably young — in their teens and 20s, I would guess.

One was a woman who had to wait out her tears while delivering a eulogy. Another was a pallbearer who dissolved into a shuddering heap. And then there was a man who came hesitantly down the aisle, stopping short of the casket and turning away. A moment later he was back, willing himself forward. He leaned over the body and cried out the dead man’s name.

Torrie was 20. And let me tell you: Burying a 20-year-old is a special kind of awful.

Not just because it seems an obscene inversion of the natural order — parents burying a child. Not just because it reeks of untapped potential, an end too close to a beginning. But also because of what it does to the young people left behind, the brutal, unsentimental way it strips away their illusions of invincibility and immortality.

It is one of the defining conceits of youth, this conviction that time doesn’t touch you, that 16 is endless and 20, forever. Yes, the conceit always ends, but you hate to see it end so abruptly.

I should mention that Torrie did not die as too many young people do. There was no gang fight, no random shooting, no beef in a crowded nightclub. He had an asthma attack. It led to heart failure.

In a way, that makes his death harder to grasp. We have grown sadly used to seeing young people die through senseless acts. To have one snatched away by sudden illness feels like a betrayal, the universe behaving with unfathomable meanness. It feels like God is cheating.

Torrie practically grew up in my house, just as my youngest sons practically grew up in his. If you’ve ever had teenagers, you know what I’m talking about: that migrating flock of kids that seems to live nowhere in particular, stopping at each other’s houses for days at a time to empty the fridge and commandeer the television before moving on.

So it was not at all uncommon for me to come downstairs on a summer morning and find Torrie sacked out on the floor in the den, maybe with my boys snoring in the chairs where they had fallen asleep playing video games or watching movies deep into the night. Sometimes, my wife had to order Torrie and his cousin to go home if only to shower and change clothes.

It had been two years since I saw him and I almost didn’t recognize him in the casket. He was a young man with a beard and a head full of braids, no longer the kid I remembered — pudgy, fresh-faced and with a big, cheesy grin.

My sons had a hard time at the funeral. Everybody did, I guess, but it was my boys and their peers who broke my heart.

Young people — African-American men in particular — often meet the world with faces that give nothing away. Armored faces, I call them. They guard their feelings jealously, project an air of studied indifference as if to make us believe they are beyond the ability to be hurt. It’s all a fraud, of course, a form of self-defense, a way of projecting an invulnerability one does not always feel.

You know this if you are an adult. And if the knowing sometimes leaves you exasperated over the conceits of kids, there is also a wistfulness that comes from realizing something they often do not: No one is beyond hurt, and nothing is forever.

Usually it’s an incremental lesson, a wisdom you pick up with the years. But sometimes, life is a merciless teacher. That was certainly the case on the Friday when Torrie was buried. So it hurt to sit in that church as armored faces broke and tears came streaming out.

My sons came away with a renewed understanding that every day is a gift. It’s an important lesson.
But man, what a hell of a way to learn.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: lpitts@herald.com