THE question inevitably comes when someone dies at a seemingly premature age. Why?
Some people trundle through life with every conceivable bad habit and live well into their 90s. Other folks do everything right -- eat the right things, exercise regularly, avoid smoke and drink -- and die young. Why?
When Anne Arundel County Councilman Cliff R. Roop collapsed at a council public hearing Monday and died of a heart attack, lots of people asked why.
Many were shocked as much as they were saddened.
Mr. Roop's heart was only 45, much too young to stop beating, many thought. Why?
After learning of Mr. Roop died, I found myself asking that same simple question, which has no sure answer: Why?
I don't know the answer, but I think I know why I'm asking.
I am writing this column two days after Mr. Roop's death -- and two days before my 42nd birthday. I know life is short and can get shorter without self-maintenance. I became more health conscious at age 40 than I was in my 30s, and certainly more so than when I was in my immortal 20s.
After turning 40, I improved my diet and started exercising regularly, instead of a few times a year.
Still, even as I churn stationary exercise equipment, crush the abs and lift a few weights, I don't believe for a minute that daily workouts are an insurance policy. They improve the odds; they don't guarantee longevity.
They don't even guarantee enough stamina to handle full-court basketball games with guys half my age.
So much of life is mystery, especially death.
As Rome's Marcus Aurelius Antonius (A.D. 121-180) wrote in his "Meditations": "Death, like generation, is a secret of nature."
Sometimes it's senseless, like the deliberate acts that claimed 308 lives in Baltimore's intractable violence. And it comes in other unexpected ways, as it apparently did to Mr. Roop.
Death at age 45 is hard to conceive in the year 2000. One hundred years ago, it would have been the norm.
In 1900, Americans could expect to live an average of only 47 years -- 47.3 to be exact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Death from such diseases as pneumonia and tuberculosis took a heavy toll back then. The development of antibiotics, and cleaner drinking water (thanks largely to Marylander Abel Wolman) have helped people live longer, healthier lives. Although a late 20th-century health crisis, AIDS, has been devastating, life expectancy for Americans now is 76.
In the year 2000, age 45 is only old to teen-agers. But young people think anyone over 29 has reached life's final phase.
To me, 45 is far from old. I like to think that I am, too.
Mr. Roop's death is a loss for Republicans, Severna Park and Anne Arundel County.
It also reminds us that we never stop for death; we only pause for it.
The county properly canceled its meeting after Mr. Roop collapsed Monday, and County Executive Janet Owens quickly ordered county flags flown at half-staff.
A day later, the county was in the midst of the loss but had already started to move beyond it. Less than a day after Mr. Roop's death, people were calling Council Chairman Daniel E. Klosterman Jr. to inquire about the replacement process. It sounds cold, but that's reality: The council has less than a month to select a council member to take Mr. Roop's place.
In less than two weeks, the council will again convene and decide issues that were postponed Monday night.
The question "why" already is giving way to life's continuum.
As for the great question, why: Why bother trying to answer? A better question is "what" -- what can we do in the time we have here?
That answer is easy: Plenty. In 45 years, Mr. Roop owned and operated a business, coached baseball and served on civic and political panels. He was the father of two daughters.
I didn't get to know him well, but it didn't take long for me to discover that he was a decent guy with plenty of good qualities. He was committed to public service and seemed unconcerned about party labels. He was a Republican who held no pointless animosity toward Democrats. Party affiliation seemed a means to the end -- good government.
Yes, he viewed the world through the eyes of a businessman. His business was the Shell service station at the National Security Agency complex near Fort George G. Meade. He was a member of the Manhattan Beach Civic Association, the Anne Arundel County Republican Central Committee and the county commission that oversees bingo establishments.
In sum, he wanted to build better communities.
Norris West writes editorials for The Sun in Anne Arundel County.