A dear friend sends me a note that his mom, after 40 glorious years of teaching children in public schools, is dying. The death of a mom or dad is among the worst things a child must bear, watching a parent in their final days. But I still marvel at the fact when Helen Exum died four years ago, not once did I cry and I’m a pretty emotional guy.
The overwhelming reason I could handle her death is because 70 years ago, she began to take me to Sunday School when I was less than a month old. Back in those days the First Presbyterian Church made a big deal out of a child having ‘perfect attendance’ and no matter if we were on vacation, my dad would stop the car in whatever city before 9:45 a.m. and we, total strangers, would troop in among people we had never seen before and attend Sunday School with them.
Once a year we would march up the steps in the sanctuary and Dr. James Fowle himself would hand out perfect attendance pins, with each new year added to the bottom, and all of us had 10 years or more. I can remember it vividly, so when mother began to really fail, or when my brothers died, it was much more a matter of “So long ‘til next time” because I haven’t the slightest doubt I’ll be asking for second-helpings for eternity.
It’s true: our society has it catty-wampus. We should cry when a baby is born, before all the pitfalls, the errors in judgment, the car wrecks and the sutures – oh the sutures – that await. I’ve had more sutures in me than it would take to knit a rug for the Oval Office at the White House so I can tell you how tough it is but, then again, I can hardly wait to get past St. Peter and The Big Book to learn “the rest of the story” about so many things I still wonder about.
One of my favorite stories is about a mother who, when her daughter was about five years old, learned she had terminal cancer and wouldn’t be around to watch that child grow. So she started writing notes to her daughter, folding them just so, and hiding them in a very carefully-planned way where her child would find them as she grew. Would you believe the daughter found what is believed to be the last note 26 years later.
I know of another guy who lived in a distant city. When his Mom got sick, he would mail her a card, a love note, or a funny cartoon every day for the next four years. And you worry about the cost of a postage stamp?
If you will google “great inspirational stories,” or “the funniest jokers this week,” or “what happened on (insert birthday)” you will find there is an absolute wealth of stories you can print, then scribble “I think you’ll get a bang out of this … love … me.” But get this: you would be amazed by the way it will become a blessing to BOTH of you. One vital rule: never email – always “snail mail.” Any of the pros will tell you that there ain’t any delete key on a hand-written note.
There are hundreds of ways to say I love you and it’s not hard at all, if you can only visit on a Sunday afternoon, to take a different candy bar each week that you don’t think the one you love has tasted. One vital rule: Avoid licorice, unless you know a taste has been developed for it.
Did you notice the very last of Doolittle’s Raiders passed away a couple of weeks ago? Those heroes, who flew bombers over Japan with the knowledge there was not enough fuel to get back home, shared a spot of brandy together for over the next 50 years. That’s all you are doing, creating an ongoing ritual that any doctor will affirm is stronger than anything modern medicine can offer.
I love any purposeful, planned exchange of affection between two people. John Wooden, perhaps the greatest college basketball coach who ever lived, would write his wife a love letter every Sunday and leave it on her pillow. When she died, he would still leave a hand-written note on her pillow every Sunday and, when the pile would get big enough, he would take all of the unopened notes, wrap the packet in ribbon and put it in one of her dresser drawers. As he began a new stack the next Sunday, he knew she had read each, this in the way heaven works.
The best I have ever heard? Lookout Mountain Presbyterian pastor Joe Novenson was asked to look in on a pretty girl with an inoperable brain tumor at Erlanger. He found Charlene had virtually no immediate family left and, in a style the rest of humanity can only wish for, he began the honor of being her lone visitor. In many more days than not, Joe learned she had been a great athlete and immensely popular at GPS.
So my dear Polish pastor got his hands on an old GPS yearbook, tracked down the modern-day addresses of her classmates and had as many that could to send him emails about the patient. He would then sit by her bed and ask, “Do you remember Barbara Gott?” Charlene would immediately bask in the memories she and Barbara had shared. And that’s when Joe would reach into his pocket and say simply, “I got an email from her ... would you like to hear it?”
Understand … this wasn’t three or four replies … this was among dozens. I don’t need to tell you the impact such a blessing would be to someone who only guessed they would die alone. I don’t need to tell you how many were at her funeral and … for the record … shortly before she died, she asked Joe to tell her about a Jesus who would send someone as wonderful to her bedside every day. That’s how I know I’ll see Charlene again.
One quick aside. When I was traveling a lot, Charlene was a Delta flight attendant and sometimes I’d see her on my flight crew. Late one day I boarded in Atlanta, headed to the West Coast, and I begged Charlene to let me take her to dinner sometime. C’mon, for two who had known each other since we were 10 years old in the Chattanooga Swim League, it was light-hearted babble and we were having fun.
I was seated next to a middle-aged lady and explained, to her delight, we had been friends since childhood. When they began to serve the in-flight meal, the lady gathered her things and, curiously, moved to another seat. Soon the flight crew got all giggly and wouldn’t you know Charlene sat beside me as we were served the best meal ever on Delta as I “took her to dinner.” Don’t tell me how much fun you can have in life if only you’ll try.
My beloved sage Dr. Seuss taught us, “Don’t cry because it’s over – be happy that it happened.”
So the way I’ve tried to look at this great mystery is that more times than not death gives the living a tremendous opportunity to say goodbye with balloons, firecrackers, a spot of brandy or any other display of affection. When mother was bedridden, she loved to watch religious programs, savoring the great sermons and such, and I decreed for every sermon there must be a communion. So her caretakers, each immediately becoming a member of our family, were tasked with bringing mother's “glass of communion,” that’s right ... her favorite wine.
Everybody thought it was hysterical, and “communion” never started until the 4 p.m. service, but not once can I ever remember Mom sending a full glass back to the kitchen.
Don’t you see? Death is every bit as wonderful as childbirth. I am very well versed in how tragic and painful and even senseless death can be, and I pray every day that God will show grace to anyone whose last mile turns out to be the hardest of their life, but as my tennis partner Ben Haden would constantly remind us, “Keep your eyes on the cross. Always, the cross.”
That is why I hardly ever cry when those who I love pass from this world to the next – it’s the cross.
What can possibly be sad or mournful about that? To me it is simply “So long ‘til next time,” but to bless the journey with an unashamed ‘I love you’ has never failed to mean everything we cherish in life.