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January 26, 2004
Over the weekend, a police officer shot a young man on the roof of his apartment building. He was there to take a shortcut to a neighboring building: rather than going all the way down, out the door, down the block and into the next building, you can just go upstairs and step across.

Where are you going this weekend, someone will ask in the summer time. Tar Beach, will come the answer: sunbathing up on the roof, the low-budget answer to the Hamptons.

People have picnics and parties up there. People plant gardens -- look up on just about any street, and you can see the trees. Kids play up there. That's dangerous, but they do.

It's quiet up on the roof. The traffic noises are far away -- they sound like they're on the radio, not like they're real. You can play your music up there and not bother anyone. That's what a kid wants: a place to be free. A half-secret place. The roof is such a place. Half a secret.

People die up there, too. This young man was crossing from his building over to his neighbor's, on his way to a party. In the split second a cop has to make a decision about something, this one was startled and made the wrong one, and the young man died. It won't be like the Amadou Dialo case in New York's public life -- the police officer himself admits his terrible error. Eleven years on the force without ever having fired his gun. One young life over. Another life changed forever.

It's a hard place to grow up. Dangerous. A colleague's son was killed a few years ago, joyriding on top of a subway car -- an insane game played by young daredevils all over the city. How could they be so stupid, you wonder. We forget how young people feel. They don't feel their mortality. Their bodies are strong and responsive to their minds. They can't feel their own deaths, not yet. They'll live forever.

That is why armies are made up of young people. Nineteen is the average age. They have not yet begun to feel their own deaths in their strong bodies. They'll go when the order is go, because they know they'll be all right. Even the ones who die, even they knew they'd be all right. They knew their own strength. They just didn't know the strength of death.

Their commanding officers direct them to write letters home, to be sent in case of their deaths. This is sobering. They all sit down to write. For a few moments, the letters pierce the wall of confidence that surrounds them; death comes near, sits beside them as they write, dictates last thoughts and messages. For a few moments, they sound older than their years. When they come home, months later, they really are older than their years. They stay that way for the rest of their lives. Their youth got chopped down like a tree. They grew up in a matter of weeks.

A pointless, futile death. Or a death in combat. Or a death from a bomb by the side of the road, which is a little bit of both. A death that leaves a somber letter behind, or a death in midair, one that leaves not a word. We who were privileged to live our lives to their normal spans know that we were just lucky. Through no particular wisdom on our part, we have been in the right place at the right time. So far.

Sit down and write a letter to the people you love. Make it a letter to be sent after you are gone. Address it and put a stamp on it, and note on the outside that it's to be sent after your death, not opened except by the addressee. Keep it with your important things, the things somebody will come across if they are cleaning out your place.
Copyright © 2022 Barbara Crafton
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