My friend Dan Jagendorf died this January, in his sleep, in Brooklyn. He was 49 years old and in great shape. His death was completely unexpected, due to some kind of sleep apnea incident, a condition I didn’t even know he had.
I still don’t know exactly how he died and I don’t expect I ever will.
Jagendorf designed and engineered the clip-light pulley system for Brian Parks’ Americana Absurdum, a show many call the seminal production of the independent theater movement on the Lower East Side of New York in the early ’90s. An indispensable member of the early FringeNYC festivals, Jagendorf was a set designer, technical director and one-man theater rescue squad. Quiet, modest and deeply decent, Jagendorf touched the lives of generations of theater artists in New York. He worked on hundreds of shows, and his work was always impeccable, never cutting corners or complaining about the lack of time or money given him, Jagendorf always, always got the job done well. And in all the years I worked with him, over 30 years, he never took a bow. Because that’s the way the theater works. Never center stage, Jagendorf made everyone else’s work possible.
Only after his death did I realize that Jagendorf understood the essence of the theater better than anyone I ever knew. He got, instinctively, that it was about hard, skilled, physical labor, done communally, in order to give something wondrous to a group of strangers sometime down the road.
We lost someone else recently in New York’s theater community. I didn’t know Philip Seymour Hoffman—met him a couple of times and am good friends with some of his good friends—but I did get to see a lot of his work onstage and I know he never relied on his natural, burning talent; he knew and lived the same truth about the theater that Jagendorf did. He always showed up and did the work. He was a real and vital presence here, not a movie star visiting, but a local, respected stage actor and director who made a lot of great movies and won some awards. Hoffman was a celebrated and public figure, Jagendorf was solidly in the background, both were loved and deeply admired by those they worked with, both are gone now.
I don’t imagine there’s anything new or original to say about death or grief. Words don’t really help much, though we are compelled to say them and write them. Anyone who’s been to a wake or a funeral or a memorial has apologetically wrestled through the same cliches. Having nothing else, we use the tools at hand, gamely emptying a reservoir with a child’s beach bucket.
Words don’t make it better, nor does much else, really, not even time. Gathering helps, I suppose; physically being with others who knew the person now gone. Crying together helps, sharing memories and stories. Gradually, painfully, the death becomes another fact you accept.
But something odd happens, I’ve noticed. Not gradually, but immediately and permanently. After someone has died, the first and most important thing about them in our minds becomes the fact that they died. The one event they share with every other human being ever born, the most banal and expected thing about them becomes their primary characteristic.
Death magnifies people, transfigures them, they become Heroes or Saints or Cowards or Victims. Death freezes them in our minds, our sorrow and surprise lock them into one final pose. Their last physical act defines them for some reason, over-shadowing if not replacing every single other thing they did, everything that happened to them while alive. Suicides and overdoses transform a person’s entire life into some kind of morality play or lost battle.
Why do we view the final act of a person as the defining one?
We will not all get lost for days in the woods, cook a ten-course meal, achieve simultaneous orgasm with a partner, get punched in the face, sail across an ocean, break out of prison, climb a mountain or parachute out of a plane, but every one of us will die. It’s our one guarantee and our one common experience, uniting every living thing on earth. And very, very few of us will choose how it happens. We’ll slip, fall, drift into the other lane, get a bad diagnosis, wander into a bad situation, feel our heart seize up, cross a murderer’s path or, if we’re like Jagendorf, just not wake up one day.
I’ve often heard “Everyone dies alone.” That always felt true to me, but of course it’s not.
About 6,500 people on the planet die every hour, over 155,000 die each day. We die in throngs. That tunnel of light is as crowded as an F train in the middle of the evening commute. Packed with strangers, but all jostled together, all on the exact same ride.
This doesn’t diminish the deaths I’ve personally experienced, friends and family now gone, and it doesn’t put them into any useful context, but it makes me think about them all a little differently. The hospital beds and ambulances and crime scenes lose some of their importance. Those last moments don’t seem quite as critical. How Hoffman died and the fact that Jagendorf is gone feel less pressing and unbelievable to me when I remember the inevitability. The loss isn’t diminished, but the deaths feel less important or at least less defining. Their deaths, like mine, like yours, were/are expected. Hell, guaranteed.
Their lives weren’t. Their lives were wondrous. Everything they did, everything every one of us does fully, with conviction, with courage, with purpose: those are the amazing things. The hardship and struggle and triumph and despair and risk and terror and joy of getting through a single day, of loving someone, of saying something, of creating something new and strange, of just walking around with your eyes open and letting this world wash through you . . .
Every choice someone makes means something that could have happened didn’t and something else did. Every single choice. The creative act of living is more worthy of my astonishment than the inevitable act of dying.
We all die and it’s almost never our choice how we do it. It is our choice how we live.
I’ll miss Jagendorf terribly and I feel deeply for my friends who knew Hoffman so well. They were good men, and we are less without them. Let’s honor them by remembering their lives and living ours while we can.