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There is a Latin phrase that occurs often in English and Scottish poetry from the 14th and 15th centuries: Timor mortis conturbat me.

It translates to "the fear of death disorders me," and while the meaning may seem clear enough, it's helpful to know that it's a phrase everyday people of the time would have been familiar with. It's an allusion to a line in Catholic liturgy, which roughly translates to "Because I sin every day, without repentance, the fear of death disturbs me. Hell holds no redemption, so have mercy on me, o God, and save me."

It was a reminder that the future was promised to no one, so you better get about doing penance and good works to be prepared for the inevitable. Because, even then, people tended to take a shorter view of things and to ignore all intimations of their own mortality.

They say we're the only animal who has figured out this death and dying thing, at least insofar as we know that it applies to us. Schopenhauer thought animals had an advantage over us in that they weren't able to foresee their deaths, but he had the disadvantage of dying in the 19th century. Now this idea is just another case of presumptive human exceptionalism.

It's widely believed that primates, elephants and dolphins possess a kind of self-awareness that allows them at least some understanding of death and its permanence. Jane Goodall observed tribes of chimps making war and desecrating the bodies of their enemies. I have seen my pets mourn and seek warmth, quiet and isolation in their life's last hours.

There is no bright line between us and them; there are degrees of understanding.

I don't understand that much. Timor mortis conturbat me.

. . .

I have spent a lot of this week reading tributes to, and anecdotes about, Matt DeCample on social media.

I learned things about him. He drank milk. (Of course he did.) He made a point of mentoring young reporters even when he was a young reporter. Mostly they affirmed what everyone knew: Matt was good.

Matt died a week ago, at 44, after about a three-year battle with liver cancer. A lot of people knew Matt, and a lot more felt like they did. He was on TV a lot; he talked from stages a lot. He was a performer, deeply involved with improvisational comedy.

He'd been on my mind lately; a friend had asked how he was doing a couple of Fridays ago and I had to admit I didn't know. It had been a few weeks since I'd seen him; we usually crossed paths a couple of times a month. Last Sunday morning I found out the end was imminent.

After showing up here about 20 years ago as a reporter for KATV, he moved over to become a press spokesman for Mike Beebe when Beebe was the state's attorney general, and stayed with him as press secretary after Beebe became governor. For the past few years he'd been working as a media consultant--the Arkansas Cinema Society and the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival were among his many clients.

So while we mostly had a professional relationship, I saw him at gallery openings and parties and tooling around in his Subaru WRX. He was very good at his job. I always enjoyed talking to him. I was not close enough to ever hear him express anything other than cheerful optimism after his diagnosis. He said what he wanted was normalcy, and he set things up so it was easy to provide it. Matt was always funny--I laughed when I saw him in a T-shirt that read "Shut up Liver, you're fine."

I've been going back through the Tumblr blog Mattie D. vs. The Evil C he started after receiving his liver cancer diagnosis in 2016. The first entry, from May 26 of that year:

Here I am at 41, and I have cancer. Always the overachiever, this guy.

It's in my liver, which I thought I always had a pretty solid relationship with. Didn't drink too much, didn't put anything too horrible in my body for it to filter, generally good times. Then it turns against me. Jerk. I still need it, obviously, but ... jerk.

The cancer is aggressive and advanced, but also localized and can be fought. I'm an improviser, so I must practice what I teach and say "Yes, and." Yes, I have cancer. And, now we go to war. Rally the North! Also, doctors. Rally good doctors.

Someone needs to archive this remarkable document.

. . .

God help me, but whenever anyone so beloved dies there is a temptation to insert oneself into the narrative, to make a show of one's own loss, to blur the lines between tribute and self-aggrandizement.

In my business, at my age, you could write about the death of someone with whom you had at least a cursory connection every week. You can, and some have, appropriate the pain of others for material. We all die, and at least part of what moves us to grief is the disordering fear of our own extinction. Let's stipulate that, as the poem goes, it is the blight that man was born for; it is ourselves we mourn for.

Yet I believe that Matt DeCample was the friend he seemed to be to everyone who knew him, even in the slightest and shallowest of ways. He was a good man, in an age when being and doing good takes courage. He was kind in an age when many seem to regard kindness as a sign of weakness.

And he made you feel like you were good too. Or at least that you were capable of goodness.

There will be a memorial service for him at 2 p.m. today at the Clinton Presidential Center. Hundreds of people will be there, and not one of them will harbor an unkind thought for the duration of that ceremony. Thousands might be touched by his example, that he provided--in his equanimous yet ferocious fight for life--something to which we might aspire.

Maybe Matt was a different kind of animal. He knew he was going to die, but timor mortis did not conturbat him. Or rather it did conturbat him, but he was brave enough and strong enough to provide an example of good cheer and grace despite the conturbatum inherent in the human condition.


MovieStyle on 03/10/2019

Print Headline: PHILIP MARTIN: The good guy


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