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Unexpected happenings remind us to appreciate life

Normally when tragedy strikes, you don’t think of it happening to someone you know. As bad as it may be, the news doesn’t really hit you hard since the people are little more than distant and unknown images.

But every now and then, life can bring tragedy uncomfortably close, like it did Thursday morning when I got the news that my friend Bert lost his life in a murder-suicide the day before. Suddenly, sayings like “live every day like it’s your last”and “life is short” didn’t seem so irrelevant.The details of the incident – he forced his three-year-old daughter to drink pesticide and acid, doused his wife with the acid, then drank some himself and set the house on fire, killing himself and his daughter – only make the death harder to accept.

That kind of behavior is supposed to be reserved for the wacko serial killers of the world – the Ted Bundys, the Jeffrey Dahmers, the Timothy McVeighs, not a mild-mannered biochemist with a young family and a bright future.

Talented and ambitious, Bert was an achiever inside and outside of the classroom at our former school. He was captain of the cricket and basketball teams on the residence hall where we used to live, where most residents knew him as “Slam Dunk” for his exploits with the basketball.

After graduating in 1997, he held down a good job, got married and settled down to family and professional life. But clearly, all was not right with him. The grisliness of the crime begs difficult questions – what could drive a man to commit such unthinkable acts and where were the warning signs?

Those are the questions that may never be answered. His neighbors said they heard quarrels frequently. The final, fatal quarrel apparently erupted because his wife was returning to college, against his wishes. Could a household quarrel, heated though it may be, drive a seemingly well-adjusted human being to kill his flesh and blood?

A quote from his father-in-law after the deaths still haunts me: “He had no friends.” Not so when we were at school together – he wasn’t the most outgoing or talkative person, but he had a big enough circle of friends around him. Where were all those friends after he left school?

Where was I? In the last two years, I probably saw him twice, if that much, and I’ll bet that was more than most of his other friends from campus saw him.

The last time I remember us meeting up, a chance encounter in a supermarket a couple years ago, he looked more stressed than usual, but I couldn’t see the doom that was going to unfold later.

We can learn something from this tragedy. It’s important to stay in touch with family and friends, because clichéd as it might sound, you never know when some twist of fate will take someone out of your life. A phone call, letter, e-mail or visit may mean more than you think. And while you’re at it, try to find out what’s happening in that somebody’s life. See if you can help.

And don’t wait too long either. A lot can happen in a short space of time, as I found out Thursday morning. Rest in peace, Slam Dunk.