Some of you gathered here tonight know me, but for those who don’t, I lived in the Bridgeton area for 59 years. For 20 of those years, I was an English teacher at Bridgeton High School. Knowing the closeness of the BHS community, I’m sure some of my former students are here tonight. I know the person reading this letter was one. Rhiannon Marie Mangini was another.
As a teacher, you get to share many wonderful, happy times with your students. But, this being life, there are sadder, tragic moments, too. Obviously, today is one of the those.
For several years, I taught 11thgrade. During those years, my students and I would read the play Macbeth, one of William Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies. Most years, I would have my students memorize and deliver the famous Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow soliloquy, as I had been required to do as an 18-year-old freshman student at Villanova University.
That soliloquy, delivered by Macbeth immediately after learning of the self-induced death of his guilt-stricken wife, ends this way:
Out, out brief candle!
Life is but a walking shadow,
A poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.
It is a tale told by an idiot.
Full of sound and fury …
Now you probably wouldn’t express it in exactly those words, but I’m sure many of you are feeling that way right now. And yes, it is true that the candle we called Rhiannon Marie Mangini has been extinguished. And yes, her time on Earth was too brief by far. But oh, how brightly that candle burned, bringing joy and warmth and laughter and creativity and honesty to all of us who were fortunate enough to view its light. There is no way any of us could, or should, believe Rhiannon’s life had no significance. If that were true, Paul would be reading these words to an empty room.
Those of you on Facebook are aware that after learning about Rhiannon’s death, I posted a video of the great American singer/songwriter James Taylor performing his classic “Fire and Rain.” I think Taylor’s lyrics speak strongly to us at troubling times like these. When he wrote the song, Taylor, then in his early 20s, was fighting a life-and-death struggle against a horrid, horrible addiction to heroin. Two of the stanzas speak to that. The first speaks of his feelings when he learned that his close friend, Suzanne, had died before him. The song’s powerful chorus repeats these words:
I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end.
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend.
But I always thought I’d see you … one more time again.
Taylor was writing about his Suzanne. But he was really speaking for all of us. Even though we know death is the inevitable end of life on Earth, we always think we will have at least one more time to speak with those we care for. But death is no respecter of our wishes. It comes when it comes and it comes in the way it chooses.
There is no question that death is powerful. It makes us mourn. It makes us grieve. It makes us question the meaning of life and the very nature of our existence. But death is never the ultimate end for a person or the impact they can continue to have. And you don’t have to be religious to realize that. Science teaches us that as human beings we are, among other things, truly made of stardust, the fine dust of brilliant stars that may have originated billions of miles away and millions of years ago. Now it may be easy to snuff out a candle. But who or what can destroy stardust?
We are given many gifts to produce this form of immortality for others. Shakespeare used words. James Taylor used lyrics and music. But you don’t have to be as talented as that duo. Each of us has the amazing power of memory. I wouldn’t be much of a teacher if I couldn’t guide you to understand that. Here is what I want you to do. Close your eyes. Now picture a happy moment you shared with Rhiannon. Focus all your senses. See again what you saw. Hear again what you heard. If applicable, taste the tastes, smell the smells, and feel the touches. I will count silently to 5. Then, I will ask you to open your eyes. (COUNT SILENTLY TO 5). Now, open your eyes. This, my friends, is a way Rhiannon will live forever.
But it is only one way. From this day forward, every time you see a striking tattoo or a strange hair coloring and think “That’s something Rhiannon would want”, then Rhiannon’s spirit lives. Every time you hear someone say something phony and think “Man, Rhiannon would put him or her in their place,” (probably using language that would make even the movie Mafia bosses she liked so much blush), the spirit of Rhiannon lives. Every time you talk to the two children she loved so dearly, or reach out and help someone undergoing troubling times, or simply battle against stacked odds to be the best person you can be, the spirit of Rhiannon lives.
So, when you leave here tonight, mourn as you must. But as soon as you can, in all your tomorrows and tomorrows and tomorrows to follow, remember Rhiannon and her indomitable spirit. Her candle may have been extinguished, but that does not mean the light she brought must go out as well. All you have to do is have the candle that is you burn as brightly as she did hers. And teach your children and your grandchildren and your friends how to burn theirs brightly, too. For in this world, which at times can seem so dark and devilish and deadly, we can never have too much light.
Paul Padgett, who is a funeral director in my hometown of Bridgeton, NJ and previously was an English student in my 11th grade Honors English class, asked me to write a few words he could read at the services for Rhiannon. Rhiannon was one of two of my former students who died of apparent drug overdoses in the same May weekend. Dejectedly, Paul told me he had performed services for 20 young men and women in the past couple of years who had been claimed by the deadly drug epidemic now sweeping rural America and small urban centers like Bridgeton.