A death in the family is always hard to take, even when it is the death of someone who has lived a long and full life, and was not expected to survive much longer. But it is especially hard when it is the sudden and unexpected death of someone younger, such as the recent death of my niece, whom I will call Margaret, out of respect for the privacy of her children.
Only about a month ago, we were relieved to learn that Margaret did not have cancer, as doctors had thought. But she died of a heart attack. It was a reminder of how tenuous a hold we all have on life and how it can end at any moment for any reason.
Margaret would have been 60 years old this November. But hers would not have been a full life, even if she had lived longer. She was a conscientious woman and a devoted mother but she made some mistakes early in life that had lasting effects on her health, her self-confidence, and her morale.
We all make mistakes -- usually too many to keep track of -- but some of us get second, third, and fourth chances. Margaret did not. That was the difference.
Once, when she was blaming herself for not having made more of her opportunities, she said: "I went to the same school you went to, Uncle Tommy!"
But I had to remind her that it was not the same school. It was the same building but the school had declined, like so many other schools. She never received the same education that I had.
Neither would her children. Once I examined the math textbook that they were using in the 11th grade -- and realized that they were being taught what I was taught in the 9th grade. Sadly -- tragically -- that is the story of all too many other black youngsters growing up in ghettos around the country.
For an all too brief time, Margaret came out of her withdrawal from the world and showed what she was capable of. She took a job at a university and quickly found fulfillment and the appreciation and respect of those around her.
Then her teenage daughter was suddenly struck with cancer and Margaret had to take her across the country to a medical facility specializing in the treatment of that kind of cancer. After a grueling experience for both of them, they returned to New York.
But now Margaret's job was gone -- and the way it was done left her feeling betrayed by those she had trusted. So she withdrew into herself once more, with failing health adding to her problems. She had more undeserved troubles than anyone else that I know.
Recently, as things were getting better for her, she told me that she was feeling guilty for her good fortune.
"You have nothing to feel guilty about," I told her. "If you were to win the lottery tomorrow, you would just be catching up."