COLUMN: These days, death takes no holiday

Death was on my mind even before Saturday’s shocking news about the killing of Steve McNair.
A recent string of celebrity deaths – including the one-two punch of Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett on June 25 – has kept the cable channels busy and sold lots of newspapers and magazines, even in hard times.
Ed McMahon. TV pitchman Billy Mays. The actor Karl Malden. The former boxer Alexis Arguello. The 1950s TV star Gale Storm.
And Independence Day never goes by that I don’t think of Abby, our beloved black lab mix, who we put in the basement before the Fourth of July fireworks she always found so upsetting.
We lost her a couple of years ago, but I never walk in the living room that I don’t look out the back door, where she would sit and wait on the deck, hoping I’d come visit and scratch her head.
Once on the topic, my thoughts get random.
My dad. I was startled recently to realize he’s been gone 25 years. Twenty five years. In a lucid moment, my mom wonders where he is, when he’s coming.
“Soon,” I say. “Soon.”
His mother, who outlived him by almost two decades.
My aunt Sally, whose recent death prompted not a funeral but a joyous celebrations of life. The balloons we released at her graveside.
A girl I knew in school, who died of leukemia in 1969. Today, science has progressed to the point she would likely have survived.
A friend of mine in middle school, a good swimmer who drowned in a summer camp swimming pool.
Prompted by Jackson’s death, some friends were recently having a discussion on this general topic: Who left too soon? Who would you bring back if you could?
You can imagine the names that crop up: John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King. Lincoln. Elvis.
Fans wonder what the sports world might be like if Maryland basketball star Len Bias hadn’t died less than 48 hours after being drafted by the Boston Celtics in 1986. In Pittsburgh, they still mourn baseball legend Roberto Clemente, taken too soon.

‘Luckiest man’
I think of Lou Gehrig, and the coincidence that Saturday was the 70th anniversary of his “luckiest man” speech, given as he left baseball as the result of a disease, ALS, we still haven’t licked yet.
“I may have had a tough break,” he told the throng at Yankee Stadium, “but I have an awful lot to live for.”
That’s the trick, isn’t it?
So many athletes, in particular, have trouble finding themselves in the world once the cheers stop. I think that explains why Brett Favre refuses to stay retired, why Michael Jordan came back, why Willie Mays didn’t want to put his glove away until the last possible moment.
Can you blame Joe Paterno for stubbornly staying on the sidelines at Penn State? He sees what happened to his old rival Bear Bryant – dead just four weeks after his last game at Alabama.
None of this helps make any sense of what happened to Steve McNair, of course.
Some things are just senseless.

John L. Pitts (john.pitts@djournal.com) is sports editor of the Daily Journal.

John L. Pitts/NEMS Daily Journal