If you’ve lived, then you’ve experienced death. Anyone beyond the age of 20 has likely lost someone they love. It’s been a number of years since I’ve lost a family member, but I’m not naive; I know the knock on the door will yet come again soon. Recently I received an email informing me of the recent death of a couple of coworkers who both have been retired for a number of years. It got me to thinking – when did I first experience death? Whose death did I first cry over? Whose life do I still think about often?
I guess my first cry over death occurred when my Grandma Wyatt died. Given our grandparents ages, I guess this is fairly common for a lot of us. Grandmas and Grandpas have the luxury of being constant ‘good guys’ because we don’t live with them and we don’t get disciplined by them – they play games with us, let us eat ice cream for breakfast and then send us back to our mean old parents. My Grandma’s eyes lighted up when she saw me. That’s how I still see her – this memory provides me with incentive; we should all live so long that we light someone else up like this.
My very first experience with death occurred when I was 6 years old. We had a bench swing on our front porch and I was sitting there with my dad and my childhood friend Timmy (read me) and another boy named Doug who I will one day write about. My dad had a bag of potato chips and we all were eating from it. Our cat Puff, (read me), had a litter of kittens recently and one of them had wandered up onto the front porch. My dad had gone into the house for a moment and Timmy had reached down and picked up the kitten and brought it up onto the swing with us. I offered a potato chip to the kitten and it gobbled it up. The chip got wedged in the kitten’s mouth and it was obvious that the kitten was immediately distressed, trying to cough it up. We thought the kitten was dying so Doug tried to get the chip out of the kitten’s mouth. He was unsuccessful and the kitten died. Even today whenever there are potato chips around, a moment will pass when I recall the vision of the tiny tabby choking in my hands. Visions like those tend to stay with me forever.
Of those that I have lost, who do I think about most often? That one is a tossup. I think of my Grandma often, but every couple of weeks or so, I’ll be somewhere. Maybe it is a restaurant or maybe it’s just a garage sale, but something will happen or be said and it will cause me to pause and think to myself – Joe would like this. Joe was my stepfather, but Joe was also the one man who tried to be a role model father for me. Joe traveled for his job every week, but Joe was there for his kids…even when he wasn’t there – that’s a father.
Joe died of cancer. He had been a lifelong smoker up until the last few years of his life. We said our goodbyes to each other 2 weeks before his death. When the call came of his final passing, I was on vacation in Florida. Services were held a few days later. One of my brothers was going to say a few words at his funeral, but he decided he wouldn’t be able to hold it together and asked if I would step in for him…so I did.
I recounted one of our last conversations together. Joe told me that he regretted not graduating from high school and wanted to go back to get his GED. I told him that I would help. As I was visiting with friends and family there at the funeral home, I was thinking about that conversation I had with Joe and what I was going to share in a few minutes when called on. And then it just came to me so easily; Joe wanted to go back to school because he felt he had so much to learn. At that moment, I realized the irony because Joe had been my greatest teacher. Through his actions, he taught me what it was to be a man and a father, how to laugh through times of adversity and how to love his kids. And so this is what I shared at his funeral.
Joe deserved a little more material goods than what he had, but he had more than a fair share of people who loved him. In Joe’s final days, he had lots of love and he had his memories. That we love others, that we receive love and that we are allowed to retain and recall our most precious memories for all of our eternity in these bodies is what is most precious.
Joe got it right – he realized in time that we’re all just fragile little kittens and that we’re all just one small potato chip away from death.