Coming to grips with mortality

The first essay I posted here was on the subject of death. Let me apologize in advance for revisiting the issue, but it is very much on my mind today.

If self-awareness is a blessing, fear of death is the accompanying curse. You cannot know yourself without also knowing that someday you will die. In an effort to cope with this knowledge, man invented religion. It’s the best we’ve been able to do so far.


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“Memphis is down.”

I got the call just before seven in the evening on February 5th. The company I work for has a warehouse in Memphis, Tennessee. Our operations group noticed the loss of communication with the site and notified me.

I knew there were storms in the area, some with tornadic activity. I suggested they open a trouble ticket with the phone company, and try to contact someone at the site.

“We’ve been trying for a half hour,” I was told.

An hour later I received an instant message from a co-worker.

“Memphis is gone.”

As we found out later, the tornado touched down in the parking lot of the warehouse and plowed directly into the building. The storm drill called for the employees to gather in the break room at the center of the building, away from exterior walls. The roof crashed down on top of them, killing three employees and trapping others under rubble for hours.

I saw an aerial view of the warehouse on a local TV station’s website. It looked as if a giant had bitten off two-thirds of the building. It was a total loss.

Back in the office the next day, I had an unexpected chance to reflect on the tragedy. Our computer system had preserved the terminal sessions of the Memphis workers. The job logs showed all activity ceasing right about the same time, 5:30 p.m. locally, when the evacuation began.

I did not know any of the three employees who perished, but I found myself becoming emotional as I read the ghostly remnants of their last activities. None of them had any inkling, when they arrived for work that morning, that they would never leave the facility alive.

We are not wired to cope with death when it arrives in this manner, sudden, violent, arbitrary. We console ourselves with the notion that “God has a plan,” but deep down, we all harbor a seed of doubt, the fear that all our rationalizations will be stripped away and we will be left naked and helpless in the face of forces over which we have no control, no influence, no hope.

If the point wasn’t driven home for me at that time, it certainly was yesterday.


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In the spring of 1988, my fiancée Michelle and I were planning our October wedding. Our family was on the verge of expanding without any effort on our part. My half-sister Nicole was born on April 24, and on May 13, Michelle’s older brother Eric and his wife Mary Kay gave birth to a daughter, Ryanne. They pronounced it “Ryan,” like the boy’s name, as they had been expecting a boy. Suddenly we found ourselves with two baby girls to dote upon.

As an infant, Ryanne would cry and fuss whenever her Aunt Michelle held her, ironic considering how close they became as Ryanne grew up. As for me, Ryanne and I always shared a particular fondness for each other. She was smart and perceptive, and had my number from day one.

One Christmas the whole family was gathered at the Mace home in Peoria. Ryanne received a couple of dolls that year – a Ken doll and a Jasmine figure from the film Aladdin. She left the dolls on the kitchen table before going to bed Christmas Eve. Before going downstairs to bed myself, I took the dolls and cross-dressed them, switching their outfits.

Mind you, we had a house full of people. I knew I would not be the only possible culprit when the crime was discovered. Nonetheless, in the morning Ryanne entered the kitchen, took one look at the dolls, and in a split second, turned to the stairs and shrieked, “UNCLE MICHAEL!”

When Nicole and Ryanne were eleven years old, Michelle and I took them together on a winter vacation to DisneyWorld. The girls got along famously, and with Ryanne looking so much like her aunt, and Nicole and I sharing similar features, people just assumed they were our kids. It was a fabulous four days.

Michelle, Nic, and Ryanne at Walt Disney World in 1999. Note that the girls are far too cool to actually look into the camera.

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Ryanne was also the focus of our Cookie Day each year around the holidays, which I wrote about here. It was a tradition we hoped that she would one day share with her own children, nieces, or nephews.

I didn’t see much of Ryanne after Michelle and I split up, but Michelle always kept me updated on her progress. She had grown to be a lovely young woman of eighteen when she enrolled at Northern Illinois University to study Psychology.

This past fall, Ryanne had begun her sophomore year at NIU. She had a serious boyfriend and was an active member of Delta Psi Alpha. Her grades, as always, were excellent. She was thriving. Eric and Mary Kay were justifiably proud of their little girl.


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As I left work yesterday, I heard the news reports that there had been a shooting incident at NIU. Something clicked in my brain, but I didn’t make the connection and tuned to another station.

At about 9:30 p.m., I received a call from Michelle, her voice hoarse with worry. The shooting had occurred in Ryanne’s classroom, she said, and the family had been frantically trying to reach Ryanne on her cell phone. Eric and Mary Kay had gone to Kishwaukee Hospital in DeKalb to await word of her fate.

I spent the next few hours shivering in front of the television, absorbing the emerging details of the tragedy. Four students were dead, and their names were not being released. All I could do was to wait for the next call, hoping against hope that the news was not what I feared.

The call came at 1:30 this morning.


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Ryanne Elizabeth Mace 1988-2008

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The Mace family issued the following statement Friday:

“She was ten thousand times better than the best parts of each of us. She had everything going for her: brains, beauty and an enormous heart of gold. Our hearts are broken. We want to thank everyone who has reached out to express their condolences.”

In the statement, they also thanked police, DeKalb County and hospital officials for their compassion and professionalism.

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