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Reflecting on three unexpected deaths

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Among my friends, there is a joke that sometimes my column is “What Dan did over the weekend.”

In this instance, it’s an accurate observation, but not in the way you might think.

I was saddened to learn of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s passing on Sunday.

There are some who may denigrate actors, dismissing their profession as frivolous and the attention they receive as undeserved.

To be sure, the cult of celebrity is troubling and there are many instances in which actors are credited with more than they’re due.

But actors, when they are good, and Philip Seymour Hoffman was one of the best, show us our humanity and serve as guides on journeys that can bring us to a deeper understanding of ourselves.

But even before Philip Seymour Hoffman died of an apparent drug overdose in an apartment in Greenwich Village, I already had death on my mind.

Five years ago, I found myself for a very brief expanse of time on Easter Island, where I met a talented musician and artist named Roberto Pakomio.

I wrote a blog post about my time there and promptly forgot about it until Friday night when someone left a comment there informing me that Roberto had apparently died under mysterious circumstances earlier this month — his body was found floating in the Pacific Ocean.

I was thinking about Roberto and the strange situations surrounding our meeting and his parting Sunday morning when I thought of another friend who died young — my grade-school classmate Joey.

I had mostly lost touch with Joey, a talented and athletic person, after high school.

But then one summer I took a job doing some landscaping work in my hometown to make a little money for school and ended up working side-by-side with Joey for a couple of days.

He died suddenly the following summer, having apparently fallen while hiking.

His obituary revealed that he had suffered from a mental illness since age 23. He was 27 when he died.

Joey was one of the most popular, fun-loving and generous people I’ve ever known. I knew that he had his struggles in early adulthood, as we all do, but I would never have guessed the depths of this troubles.

Needless to say, I was shocked and saddened by his death.

When we spent time together pulling weeds the previous August, he seemed like he was on the road to recovery. He shared some gummi worms with me.

My father, in his more contemplative moments, is fond of quoting Carlos Casteneda.

“In a world where death is the hunter, my friend, there is no time for regrets or doubts. There is only time for decisions,” Casteneda wrote in “Journey to Ixtlan.”

We make every decision, every day, in the face of our own death. And every decision we make will ultimately end in death. It waits for us at the end of every story.

But it’s easy to forgot that in the trials of everyday living. There seem to be more pressing concerns.

I encountered each of these three men — the actor, the musician, the athlete — at the height of their abilities and all three came to visit me, in some way, this past weekend.

I had a tangential connection to each — I enjoyed Philip Seymour Hoffman’s movies, I listened to Warren Zevon with Roberto and in eighth grade I shared a hotel room with Joey on a class trip to Niagara Falls — but in some ways their deaths struck me even more than those with whom I had a closer connection.

I took their presence for granted just as I did their distance from me. And when that presence ended and that distance closed it shocked me to a great degree.

I am hesitant to ascribe meaning to death. It is, as they say, above my pay grade.

But far from being morbid, I find thinking about it to be useful.

It’s good to keep your own mortality in mind.

Daniel Flatley is a staff writer covering Jefferson County government and politics for the Watertown Daily Times. He writes a column once a week for the local section of the paper. He can be reached at dflatley@wdt.net.

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