A Lesson on Sacrifice
Almost every day I pass the place where Enzo left this world; today it was a new, and deeper, experience.
Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about his world is meant to be. So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.
The distance between Enzo’s mother’s house and mine is about a mile, and we are connected by the road on which Enzo was killed. It is a road that, sadly, we both must drive on to go almost anywhere, and each time we are on it we must pass the spot of Enzo’s death, a place, six months after the event, his mother still decorates with small white flowers every two weeks. It is odd that whenever she passes this marker at the side of the road she, as must my wife, looks at it silently, while I must avert my eyes each time I drive past, for I remain unable to view the site of his violent end.
This morning I noticed that the transportation authorities are in the process of putting in bike lanes and safety buffers next to the spot where Enzo died. They apparently decided to take this action after the community’s outcry over yet another child’s death on this road, making me think they could have installed the safety corridor long before his accident. While I accept that it is a good thing that (with luck) no other child will die on this stretch of asphalt, it pains me to think that it took my son’s death to force the powers that be to do what they knew should have been done earlier. I say “knew” because in 2019 another boy, Jake Cassell, was killed the same way as Enzo, about a mile south on the very same road. Inexplicably, the authorities created bike lanes only around the site of Jake’s death. Had they extended them even a couple of miles more—which is what they are doing now—Enzo would still be alive.
Passing alongside the markers where the bike lanes are being built, an immense pain struck my heart. There is a cruel irony in what I was forced to see today, and seeing it every day from now on will cause me to reconsider this fact every time I leave my home. It is one thing to lose a child in a road accident—to drive past where it happened repeatedly is something I cannot describe to you fully. On most days, I feel the force of this sorrow pass over me like a wave of radiant heat as my car nears the exact spot, and I long to be anywhere but there. Today, my daily torture was made deeper by beholding the simple structure that would have saved my son’s life. Yet, in the midst of that pain, I wondered whether in some way the experience toughens me—maybe even helps to heal me—by forcing me to face Enzo’s death head-on and denying me the opportunity to imagine that it never happened.
Arriving home, I sat in my office and reflected on how Enzo’s death may, at some future point, save the life of another child who, falling as Enzo fell, will be saved by the protective space paid for by my son’s life. As I sat in silence, I asked myself whether the outcome I beheld in any way grants solace to what happened on June 1st. I imagined someone saying, “at least Enzo did not die in vain,” and I wondered what I would reply. To answer this question, I looked up the origin of the term “in vain” itself. It dates from the 1300s and is essentially a translation of the Latin phrase in vanum, meaning “containing or signifying nothing.” Thus, “to die in vain” suggested a death that served no purpose or had no meaning.
Does it give the death of Enzo avail or purpose, I wondered as I gazed at his photograph, because another’s life may be saved by his demise? Is it any consolation to a grieving parent that a child’s preventable death prompts those in power to do what should have been done all along? It is tempting to say “yes,” and to find solace in this conclusion. Those who survive a child’s death may be called to imbue it with purpose after the fact, something all major religions help to do when they promise believers that the loss of a child is part of a divine unseeable plan. As tempting as it may be, I cannot accept that any positive outcome of his death grants it meaning, for to do so would be to ignore an important truth. My son made no willing sacrifice on the day he died—he did not leave his home intending to become a martyr; thus, it seems wrong of me to retroactively apply a moral point to his actions. To do so, moreover, suggests that what happened to him illuminated some truth heretofore unknown, which it most certainly did not. Whoever might have saved my boy by ordering the bike lanes built did not suddenly realize this possibility through Enzo’s death. They were merely forced into action by those who demanded that no other child pay such a terrible price for their deadly indifference.
I am reminded of this fact every time I drive past where Enzo died and remember the horrors of a parent’s worst imaginings. There is no pain I could have conceived of prior to his death that approaches what I live through every time I am forced to consider the instant he lost his life. Yet bear it I do, and I strive with all of my might to not let the sorrow overwhelm me, for it cannot bring Enzo back. Moreover, I know it is the nature of the world sometimes to take sons from fathers and that what happened to me has happened to countless others. I understand, as a rational being, that I must feel the pain but never allow it to overwhelm me and that only this response to my loss should define me.
Nothing helps me to keep my mind in its correct place more than the contemplation of the Stoic texts that have guided me through this dark journey. Sitting in my office today, reeling from what I had seen on the road, I opened On the Brevity of Life, an essay by Seneca, the Roman philosopher, and read these words:
It takes the whole of life to learn how to live, and—what will perhaps make you wonder more—it takes the whole of life to learn how to die. Many very great men, having laid aside all their encumbrances, having renounced riches, business, and pleasures, have made it their one aim up to the very end of life to know how to live; yet the greater number of them have departed from life confessing that they did not yet know—still less do those others know.
He is correct, and his words reminded me that what I endure is my own education in the nature of life and death. This education, which, as he notes, many seek but few receive, is full of complex, and sometimes painful, lessons. Yet these are lessons whose meaning is illustrated to us by those who, like Seneca, dedicated their lives and intellect to help us understand how to think and live. Indeed, Seneca notes later in his essay that the great minds that have come before us lie waiting for our embrace and that by adopting them into our lives we make ourselves a part of their intellectual progeny:
We are wont to say that it was not in our power to choose the parents who fell to our lot, that they have been given to men by chance; yet we may be the sons of whomsoever we will.… the works which philosophy has consecrated cannot be harmed; no age will destroy them, no age reduce them; the following and each succeeding age will but increase the reverence for them, since envy works upon what is close at hand, and things that are far off we are more free to admire. The life of the philosopher, therefore, has wide range, and he is not confined by the same bounds that shut others in. He alone is freed from the limitations of the human race; all ages serve him as if a god. Has some time passed by? This he embraces by recollection. Is time present? This he uses. Is it still to come? This he anticipates. He makes his life long by combining all times into one.
Contemplating Seneca, I imagined what he would have said to me on this awful day:
Calm yourself and accept as a truth that the vagaries of human existence are beyond your control. Remember and honor your son, whom you have lost to misfortune, and lament the ignorance and indifference of those who failed in their duty to protect him. Grieve only in the right measure, neither rejecting sorrow nor becoming its slave. Lift your mind above the world you see around you, with its infinite vicissitudes, and remember that you should be consoled not by the value of your son’s death but by the worthiness of his life. It is that existence, brief and imperfect yet deserving of praise, that is the only purpose you need ever wish for or accept.
Putting down Seneca’s timeless essay, I felt at peace again, secure in the knowledge that I am comforted not by the ephemeral words of the present but by eternal ideas. I know that my son made no sacrifice, deserves no praise for dying, and any good that may come from his passing is connected to him only by chance. The same can be said of me, for I make no willing sacrifice in chronicling this journey. Every word I share in these essays about my son’s death, I wish with all my heart that I had never had the occasion to write. If I could disappear in an instant, dissolving forever into nothingness, and in doing so bring Enzo back to life, I would.
But life gives me no such choice, and each time I pass the place of my son’s demise it is like crossing a dark river whose ferryman demands payment in pain. The barriers I saw today only raised that dismal toll. Tomorrow, and every day thereafter, I will pay fortune’s levy, but I will do so calmly. That tranquility which is the mark of a mind at ease must be my daily goal, and another of Seneca’s essays, On the Happy Life, reminds me how to face each journey:
There is no condition of life that excludes a wise man from discharging his duty. If his fortune be good, he tempers it; if bad, he masters it; if he has an estate, he will exercise his virtue in plenty; if none, in poverty: if he cannot do it in his country, he will do it in banishment; if he has no command, he will do the office of a common soldier. Some people have the skill of reclaiming the fiercest of beasts; they will make a lion embrace his keeper, a tiger kiss him, and an elephant kneel to him. This is the case of a wise man in the extremest difficulties; let them be never so terrible in themselves, when they come to him once, they are perfectly tame.
With these ancient words guiding me, I must accept what I saw today as what needed to be. The barriers represent the unstoppable movement of the world and will hopefully save an innocent child’s life one day in the future. They are the consequence of my son’s death, not life. Nonetheless, they are good in themselves, regardless of the base motivations of those who create them, and when I see them I must be glad they exist. I regret that this is not what I felt today. Hopefully, I can be a better man tomorrow and cross that river of life and death with a nobler peace and a more grateful heart.