The Slice of Life

Author: Mike Alexander '72

There is a refreshing directness to it. DEATHS.

Gathering magazines to recycle, I ended up with a small stack of Notre Dame Magazines, six random issues from Summer 2002 to Summer 2004. I paged through them, wondering if I had missed anything. It turned out that I had: a few of the endpapers from the book of life. Near the back of each issue, simple and straightforward, DEATHS, all in columns and arranged by year.

I suspect we all at least glance at them, with different reasons at different ages. But it suddenly struck me that I had a snapshot of Notre Dame covering the last 80 years from the vantage of 2003 or so. Each entry is a line segment of eternity. Year graduated, year died. The snapshot is grainy; there is no guarantee that all deaths are recorded here. Specific inferences are suspect; year of graduation is no guarantee of age at graduation. But averages, bless ’em, have a way of smoothing out the rough spots. By losing our individuality we learn something about the group. So, into the computer, all of you. No names please, no ranks. Just your numbers, serially.

The count is 973 deaths, with class years from 1923 to 2001. Who is the common person in that list? The average date was just under 1952, the median date just under ’50, the mode at ’50. Good enough for government work. Assuming we graduate at age 22, we live to about 75. About 25 million mornings and evenings in that list, hope most of them were good for you all.

An average is the crudest cut. Make a histogram, a mortality table. What is the bin size, the computer asks? Putting in every year makes things too noisy, can’t see the field for the grass. Lumping too many years together makes a featureless blob. A natural start, I suppose, was by decade.

In 10-year increments our doomsday graph looks like a smooth, somewhat skewed bell curve, steeper on the old side, tapering out more slowly on the young side. Like a flipped coin, no one of us is exactly predictable, but a thousand flips later the result is inexorable. In decade leaps the grand shape of life is apparent, the compass span of existence. We are all under that curve, sooner or later.

Shrinking the divisions lets the particular peek through the general; in three-year increments a pattern emerges. From the present back to the late 1970s the line is almost flat, never more than eight per jump. This is the background noise of sadness, of accidents, of leukemia, of hearts that stop with no warning, of people dead far too young. For two decades fate bides its time.

From there back to the late 1950s there is a sort of Piedmont, a plateau sloping gently upward into the past, to about 40 per three-year span. We are back close to nominal retirement age, somewhere around 65. Death is less a stranger here, though no more welcome than the atherosclerosis or the arthritis, the thinning muscles and hair. To work hard for so long and then be cheated of at least a short time of rest seems terribly unfair.

Then the curve rises steeply, its pinnacle at 1950 to ‘53, with 125 individuals joining the silent majority. Half of us are gone at this point, and it’s downhill now.

Or is it? Our curve does not go gently into the night but instead offers two more peaks. Or two valleys, perhaps. There is a secondary peak in the mid-1940s, followed by a quick dip, just as there is a smaller peak in the early ’30s, followed by a dip. Can we see the Great Depression, World War II, the GI Bill written in our passings?

After that we fade rapidly. In the factory of life, 100 and out looks like the best contract we can get. The beginning of the 20th century is memories written on paper now, the people themselves dust, done in by the cold equations. Those secondary rises and dips recede slowly, and then there are none.

I look at my own year. The slope of the decades line is increasing more quickly now as my temporal point slides back, borne ceaselessly into the past. The fine structure of the curve will be ever altering as the effects of everything from gender to class size to medical advances intrude, war and peace, fat years and lean, the ill-placed banana peel. But the decades, they won’t change much. Familial history and the luck of the genes, my own personal data set, say my final addition to the statistics will be read by someone in the class of 2035 or so. But there is always the background noise of sadness lurking, and the columns seem to be democratic, golden lads and girls and chimney-sweepers. I would prefer a spot in the shade of the far slope, but someone may always say, Friend, go up higher.

And sooner or later, we will all be under the curve.

Mike Alexander lives in the foothills of the Coast Range in western Oregon with his wife, son and cat.