When I went to bed Saturday night, the 17th of August, all was fine in my world. My wife Diana and I had been to a fun dinner party at a friend’s house, we had no plans for the next day and everything was on an even keel. When I woke up Sunday morning I was sick but not alarmed. I did go to a clinic and seek some help but went home and slept. In the middle of the night I woke up and things went downhill fast. My memory is blank from when the ambulance backed up to the hospital until more than a week later. I had left my house, my wife, my family and my life without so much as a goodbye.
We all tend to live our lives as if we always will. I don’t know of anyone who spends their days thinking about this life ending. We are so caught up in the busy-ness of life there isn’t much time for it and, really, who wants to hang out with Debby Downer anyway? I suppose we are programmed that way. As a young man I was sure nothing could kill me, so I spent my time partying and skydiving and canoeing and windshield riding dark back roads (I’ll tell you about that sometime). As I aged, I got a bit more careful but still, like most, never thought twice about that third chili dog, lack of exercise or driving too fast. But now, as I enter the last quarter of my life (statistically speaking) I may be finally waking up to the reality of my last breath.
I just thought I could plan it, say good byes, tidy up my affairs. Until reality hit me square in the temporal nature of this existence on August 19th.
But I digress.
My wife’s father, Bill, was never part of our lives. He had actually abandoned his wife and four kids when Diana was 9. He was a philanderer, a smart man, educated and went on to live his life his way out west as an engineer. He had it all, until glioblastoma invaded his brain. Never a man of faith, actually a confessed atheist, he had a vision while in surgery of a man with red hair showing up to see him. Which is exactly what happened. And Bill finally grasped the reality of eternity. He moved back to Tennessee, remarried Diana’s mom, and spent his last few months next door preparing to die. He liked to call and see if I could come over and sit out under the big tree and have Bible studies – being a man of great intellect he was able to devour concepts quickly. The story of the laborers in the field, about how they all came at different times but all got paid the same (see Matthew 20:1-16), really intrigued him most. He asked if it was true, knowing he was coming to the field very late. I’ll never forget what he said:
“I come like a beggar with my hat in my hand.”
When Bill died, I wrote the eulogy based on that Bible story and its great truth – that the last will be first and the first will be last. But my real point here is Bill knew he was dying, made the most of his time and left in peace, reconciled to his wife and my wife.
But there’s no guarantee that will be the case.
In February of 2009 I was shopping for bathroom tile at Lowes when I got a call from a Montana number. It was my sister-in-law and she was crying. She told me my brother Mike had died suddenly and without warning. He literally dropped dead at 54. No symptoms, no medical history. As a matter of fact, he was fit, exercised regularly, ate properly and lived in Montana because he loved the outdoors. I remember my last conversation with him (about politics) and looked forward to the next one. But there would never be another chance…
“Ain’t no last goodbyes when Heaven calls you home.”
My mother came to live with us when she knew she could not take care of herself any longer. We ended up one evening with her at the hospital – she had a serious UTI and was admitted. At 83 years old she was staying at a hospital for the first time since 1963, when my little sister was born. It didn’t go well and she fell, breaking her wrist and hip and taking a blow to the head. To make a long and horrible story short, she ended up on hospice care at our house. As she lay with one foot in this world and the other in the next, she sang old hymns and quoted scripture, oblivious to those around her. Or so I thought. She had told me weeks before that she “wanted to go home” and she was obviously packing her bags. I went in to see her before going to work and I prayed with her and told her it was okay to go. Later that evening she passed peacefully. It is certainly not how she would have planned it – but we don’t have much say in the process.
“Ain’t no packing bags when your voyage is to the Son.”
I have had serious health scares before, but I never really thought they would end in death. I was always supported and surrounded by family and others who loved me, with the best medical care that money can buy. But now, as I look at the pictures of me unconscious, intubated, near death, with my wife and kids looking at me, I realize how fragile this whole thing is. We don’t always get to choose. A bad fall, aggressive cancer, sudden heart attack. Or a bite from a tiny mosquito. Anything can bring this life to a sudden stop. One day whether we are ready or not we will shed this mortal coil. And we have no control over that. We may not be have the chance to say goodbye, to right wrongs, to clean up our mess.
I have been to the place where many do not come back. I guess it just wasn’t my time, and for that I am thankful. I don’t know what to do next, but one thing I will do over the next weeks and months is share what I saw, what I learned, what I felt during this whole experience.
“Ain’t no packing bags when your voyage is to the Son
Ain’t no last goodbyes when heaven calls you on
Hard to believe this dreary night is gone
But I can feel it’s meant for everyone
It’s meant for everyone”
Daniel Amos / Sky King (Out Across the Sky) 1980