Tag Archives: death

In a Few Words

airbnb

The Airbnb concept is somehow both weird and intuitive.  It is weird to spend the night in a perfect stranger’s home, but then again it makes sense to get some use out of something otherwise unused at a mutually beneficial price.

The service thrives on customer reviews, of course.  For instance, any review with “there were creepy people playing with snakes” will pretty much guarantee that I will keep looking.  On the other hand, “there were creepy people playing with snakes—and free churros” might persuade me to stay more than one night.  So it is in the best interest of the host to provide a pleasant stay, which leads to good reviews, which leads to more business.  You know, Economics 101.

What I did not know until recently is that the hosts can also review the guests.  Makes sense, I guess, but I will admit to being a little nervous when I recently received my first review by an Airbnb host.  Here is what I got: “Al is clean and kind.”

I am incredibly proud.  Absolutely love it.  Mark it down, when I check out of the Airbnb called Life, I believe that is headstone worthy.

It reminded me of a great Anne Lamott story (in Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith, 37-45) when she helped her friend with a dance class for adults with special needs.  Several days later, Anne’s friend told her that after the class one of the students said, “I liked those old ladies!  They were helpers, and they danced.”  Those are the words Lamott wants on her gravestone.

I have had more opportunities to be around death so far than I remember requesting and each instance got me to thinking.  After all the resume drafts, and after all the performance reviews, and after all the updating the LinkedIn profile—and even after the obituary is written, read, and recorded—a few numbers and a few words are engraved on a rock in an attempt to sum up one’s life.  An entire life in just a few words.

What will your words be?  I’m just saying, clean and kind ain’t bad.

Dreams

18380491_1304245319630140_7970860990956830720_n(1)My sweet wife visited the Field of Dreams Movie Site in Dyersville, Iowa, last week and brought home several souvenirs since she knows Field of Dreams is my favorite movie of all time. And, it seems, because she loved it there.

It still feels strange to say that Field of Dreams is my favorite movie. It has a corny plot–literally–set in that spooky Iowa cornfield complete with ghost baseball players and disembodied voices. It surely wasn’t my favorite movie when I saw it at the theater in 1989. Sure, I enjoyed the baseball history and the touching storyline, but I tend to prefer movies that aren’t set in fantasy world (nothing personal against Iowa).

My mistake was watching it years later. After my father died. That did me in. That famous last scene when a father is reunited with son and they play catch once again and Annie says to Ray, “Introduce him to his granddaughter” . . . 

Okay, I might need to change the subject. These darn allergies.

Mother’s days and father’s days mean something different to those of us on the other side of the great divide called death. It can be quite depressing, but oddly enough, it never has been for me. And I don’t even have to work hard to understand why. 

As fantastic as it sounds, although Field of Dreams is crazy fiction, I believe it touches on something that is actually very real. In my heart, I believe that someday I will once again hold my mother’s hand and play catch with my dad and introduce him to his youngest granddaughter.

The very thought of it nearly makes my heart explode with anticipation.    

Special Memories

familyMy parents’ birthdays are two days apart in early December.  Well, technically, sixteen years and two days apart.  My dad turned down an appointment to the United States Naval Academy in the late 1930s but enlisted alongside thousands of other Americans when Pearl Harbor was attacked the day after his twenty-first birthday.  Meanwhile, my mom celebrated her fifth birthday in the Arkansas hills the day after the attack.  While my dad headed off to the Pacific Theater to defend America’s freedom, my mom was a little girl having her freedom defended.

This week, were they both living, my dad would celebrate his ninety-sixth birthday and my mom would celebrate her eightieth.  Ninety-six and eighty are just numbers, but they are hard-to-believe numbers.  Where does the time go?

The last time I saw my dad alive he was in a hospital bed facing a wall in the fetal position and fighting the pain.  The last time I saw my mom alive she was weak and yellow and exhausted sitting in a lift chair in my sister’s living room.  When you go to check out of this life, the checkout counter is just awful.

But that’s not what I remember on special days like birthdays.  What comes to mind are happy and healthy times—and smiles.  Like the only time I remember being angry at my dad when he couldn’t suppress laughter after a bird pooped on my head.  Or my mom’s beaming face when she had the opportunities to spend time with my sweet daughters.  That’s what I will remember this week.  The smiling people who gave me an enjoyable life.

These milestone days come and go, which must explain the shocking numbers.  My sisters and I will text each other in sacred commemoration on December 6 and December 8.  I may or may not mention either day out loud to my wife or others.  But I always notice, and always remember, and never know exactly what else to do.

I do have an idea this year.  This year, I think I’ll plug in the Bing Crosby Merry Christmas CD that I kept from my mother’s things and close my eyes and be transported to another world.  I’ll picture being a kid again in that tiny house on West Mueller Street.  Mom and Dad are both there in the living room with me.  The stove is glowing orange because it is cold and snowing outside.  I can see it out the picture window when I squeeze around the Christmas tree.

I’m going to listen to that Bing Crosby sing about Christmas and travel away to that special world of memories.  And in particular I will smile when his distinctive baritone voice delivers the signature lines from that old World War Two classic, “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”

What Is Your Potential, and How Do You Get There?

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My second post comes early this week because my friend, Tim, died, and I am heartbroken.  His sweet wife, Peggy, called with the tragic news this morning.  It is such a sad day.

Tim and I were close and shared many deep conversations.  For me, this made him special, but from Tim’s perspective, it made me one of hundreds if not thousands of people who felt close to him.  Tim had a way of creating space for deep, meaningful conversations, and all who responded to his invitation to “pull up a chair” helplessly found themselves baring their souls to this kind, sweet man.

Tim’s favorite part of his job was counseling people, mostly students, and I was privileged to be his office neighbor for the past four months.  Today, several grieving souls made a pilgrimage to the place where they shared their deepest fears and greatest dreams to a man full of wisdom and love.

Last week, Tim popped his head in my office with a new idea.  He shared that his typical approach to counseling students had always been to ask about their goals and dreams, which led to all sorts of meaningful moments.  But he had a new idea.  He asked what I thought about a new approach that asks students about their potential instead of their dreams.  He thought that just might be the better approach.

I’m not sure what I loved more, the idea itself, or the fact that this counseling maestro never stopped refining his craft.  Well, what I loved more was him.

Today, after absorbing the shocking phone call and then sharing the news with his loving colleagues, I walked into Tim’s office just to feel his presence.  I breathed in the spirit of the room and silently took in the sights of the pictures and books and stacks of work waiting for him this Monday morning.  And in that moment I noticed a little sticky note on the side of his computer monitor with the following notes: Reaching your potential – What is it?  How to get there?

I am sad that Tim won’t be able to work this new approach like a street magician, but from this day forward I will use these questions with students to tap into the magic that was Tim Pownall.  I am honored that he left me this final gift to use for good before moving on.

 

Down But Not Out

communicatorsinset

“We’ve sustained damage, but we’re still able
to maneuver.” Spock to Captain Kirk.
– Raymond Carver¹

I didn’t get all the cool toys growing up as a relatively poor kid in the 1970s, but I was the proud owner of a set of Star Trek Communicators (pictured above).  Those handy-dandy devices possessed a walkie-talkie feature that kids loved along with a piercing distress siren that brought special joy to the parents.  I credit these walkie-talkies with my natural coolness during the Flip Phone Craze at the end of the twentieth century.

The primary challenge with my Star Trek Communicators was that I had no childhood friends living nearby since we lived on a block primarily populated by widows, and lack of friends tends to lower the value of walkie-talkies.  I mean, there is a certain measure of fun in speaking into a device held in your right hand and hearing your crackly voice come out of a separate device held in your left hand, but to be honest, that level of fun is actually pretty low.

So despite my parents’ financial sacrifice and super cool gift, I am not a Trekkie.

But I think Mr. Spock’s statement to Captain Kirk that Ray Carver thought worth writing down on a scrap piece of paper and sticking in his bathrobe pocket is possibly one of the best life quotes ever: “We’ve sustained damage, but we’re still able to maneuver.”

The last few weeks have been rough for many people I know with death and disease landing severe body blows in this championship bout called life, not to mention an entire nation already a little punch-drunk pausing to remember the awful attacks by al-Qaeda fifteen years ago.  That we have sustained damage is sometimes more obvious than others.  But are we still able to maneuver?

Life is a teensy bit unpredictable, but the potential for damage is not, so the outstanding question is what to do afterward.  I suggest hiring a pointy-eared, human-Vulcan first officer to do a little once-over to determine what is still functional and then carry on your captivating adventure into the great unknown.  To live long and prosper, as best you can.

Or, if you want, give me a shout on the walkie-talkie.

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¹ Excerpted from His Bathrobe Pockets Stuffed with Notes by Raymond Carver, in A New Path to the Waterfall (1989).

Summer of Twelve

SUMMER OF TWELVE

I hear tell we had another presidential election and that
London town hosted the Olympic Games,
But everything is hazy since that was
The summer my mother died.

Four years ago today.

Her traitorous liver transfigured her to a dark yellow
And took our sweet mother away from us.
“At least she didn’t have to suffer long” we said
To comfort ourselves.  To no avail.

Four years ago today.

I used to visit her office and unload my troubles as she
Patiently listened to my busy mind analyze the complexities of life.
I now suspect that she marveled and thought:
How did I make this strange man?  I wish she wouldn’t have left us

Four years ago today.

When she knew she was not long for this world she asked me to say
Words at her funeral.  I didn’t want to, but did, and made a
Blubbering fool of myself.  I’d do it again.  I’d do anything for her.
Even write an impromptu poem remembering what happened

Four years ago today.

– Al Sturgeon, Summer of ‘16

Life Expectancy

An online life expectancy calculator concluded that my check-out time is age ninety-two, but I don’t believe it for a second.  For one thing, that would mean enduring eleven more presidential campaigns, which is unimaginable, but more importantly, the calculation did not include that both of my parents died in their early seventies, that I seek out stressful jobs, and that my childhood diet consisted of fried baloney sandwiches, nacho cheese Doritos, Little Debbie snack cakes, and Dr. Pepper.  But hey, I’ll shoot for ninety-two and see what I get.

One thing in my favor is that I am not easily angered, and word on the street is that this is good for longevity.  Other than the peaceful people on the maternal side of my family tree, I have no idea why it is difficult to get under my skin.  But I’m happy it is true.  (Of course I am, or at least I’m not upset about it!)

Frederick Buechner once wrote:

Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun.

To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king.

The chief drawback is what you are wolfing down is yourself.

The skeleton at the feast is you.

Anger simply isn’t worth it.  This is easier said than done, although I have a suggestion that seems a bit counter-intuitive to a happy life at first: lower your expectations.  I don’t mean lower your drive or goals or dreams, the fuel that makes life worth actually crawling out of bed in the morning, but I do mean living in reality enough to know that things rarely go as planned, and that that is okay.

Anger happens when life lets you down.  Expect that life will let you down.  Of all things, don’t let that come as a surprise.

For instance, I was told that I should live to age ninety-two.  I’m not counting on it.  (Cue Tim McGraw as I choose to live like I am dying!)

It Will Be Alright

SCENE 1: It was August 2012 and the worst moment of my life. My mother was dying more rapidly than I and my sisters imagined, and I had spent the last hour holding her hand while she dozed in a special lift chair. The clock taunted me like an executioner. I knew that I had to fly back to California and leave her for the final time, and eventually, that time arrived. I went to grab my bag, but when I returned to say goodbye it was obvious that this would not go well. I stepped into another room to gain composure but failed, so I simply collapsed in loud tears into her shallow, yellowed chest, and through my sobs could hear her raspy, comforting, motherly voice whisper, “It’s going to be alright.” It sure didn’t seem so. When I stood to leave, I strode quickly out the door knowing that I would never leave if I looked back. A man should never have to turn his back on his dying mother, but I did.

SCENE 2: Three weeks later, I am on an afternoon flight from Los Angeles to Memphis. That night, through the miracle of air travel, I would sleep in the bed my mother died in that morning, two thousand miles from where my fateful day began. I reviewed the eulogy fortunately written the day before and fought off tears on what otherwise appeared to be a normal flight. Troubled and weary, I put away the notes and plugged in earbuds in a futile attempt at distraction and scrolled through the flight’s music offerings. For some reason, I selected Three Little Birds by Bob Marley and soon heard his hopeful, comforting, spiritual voice say, “Don’t worry about a thing, cause every little thing gonna be alright.” The tears flowed easily now, and if anyone noticed, I didn’t give a fill-in-the-blank.

SCENE 3: It is February 2016 in Malibu, California, and I am driving down the Pacific Coast Highway for a lunch appointment with a good friend. It is sunny, blue skies, seventy degrees, and heavenly. Lunch will be served by the Pacific Ocean with surfers bobbing in the waves. It has been a bit of a rough month personally, physically, and professionally, but I am recently feeling better on all fronts. Per usual, my Legend CD by Bob Marley & the Wailers is playing, and my old friend is reassuring me once again that every little thing is gonna be alright. Mom was right. Of course. She always seemed to be.

This Is Life

Flipping through television channels is one of my least favorite things to do, but that is what I was doing Sunday evening when I discovered CNN’s “This is Life with Lisa Ling,” a series that describes itself by saying that Ling “goes on a gritty, breathtaking journey to the far corners of America.” The episode I watched was more grisly than gritty as she journeyed to the L.A. County Coroner’s office (like “This is Death with Lisa Ling”).

The show was creepily captivating—and a little personal since I learned that everyone who dies in L.A. County outside of being in a hospital under physician’s care is taken to the warehouse that Ling toured for the world to see. I live in L.A. County.

I also learned that approximately eleven thousand dead bodies are processed in same warehouse each year, which if you do the math, is a lot. The crazy number is at least understandable since L.A. County is the most populous county in the nation (ten million people!), which is like Arkansas plus Mississippi plus Oklahoma (or, for easy math, the nation of Sweden). But still. That thirty dead people on average show up there every day is just difficult to imagine.

Ling introduced viewers to several employees filling several roles at the Coroner’s, and in so doing, basically walked us through the entire process. In particular, we followed the path of the unidentified dead, from the search for family members to the eventual cremation of those whose families cannot be found.

I mean, it was a fun show. Sort of a new Addams Family!

No, it was heartbreaking. Until, that is…

At the end of the hour, Ling shared that the Coroner’s office periodically hosts a multi-faith service in Evergreen Cemetery to honor the unidentified, which sadly numbered over a thousand at the one featured on our television screen. That part was still heartbreaking. The heart-mending part for me was the point Ling made that although these souls died alone, their ashes are honored in community.

That part—the honoring of all people in community—fits the name of Ling’s show. That is what life is all about if you ask me. Now, if we can just work backward and honor the lonely while they are still alive, we will have arrived at someplace worthwhile.

Rest in Peace

Shawn

Shawn was so easy to like, which makes the news of his tragic death especially painful. He had an enormous smile, an infectious spirit, and a cruel demon that he didn’t hide from those who loved him, which was a lot of people in a lot of places.

Shawn was officially a member of our church family with his name and number nestled comfortably in the membership directory between two sets of Bairds. He had an interesting spot in the family: Reverend James Forbes once said that nobody gets into heaven without a letter of reference from someone who is living without, and for many in our congregation Shawn was the first person known well enough to approach for a recommendation.

Shawn’s struggles left him without a home, something he openly shared on stage via microphone, but he destroyed the homeless stereotype. He didn’t look/smell/act/speak like anything in the brochures.¹ Shawn hugged us, swapped stories with us, handed us bulletins at the front door, shared his life with us, and knew and remembered us by name.

The news of Shawn’s death took some wind out of me. I have experienced the loss of many people and as a former professional minister had a front row seat to the terrible specter of death on far too many occasions, but to me there is something different about losing Shawn. The loss is not inexplicable or particularly unusual, but it is its own special kind of sad.

In one way, the sadness is reminiscent of the world losing a John Belushi or Robin Williams, who brought such joy and laughter to the world that the exchange felt a little lopsided given their personal demons. Similarly, Shawn’s charm was a great gift to many, but I wish we could have returned the favor in the ways that he needed most.

Shawn will be remembered in good and right ways of course, and his spirit will live on and make us better. My hope is that we will honor him by continuing the quest for ways to help one another as we struggle through life together.² My religious conviction is to follow after Jesus of Nazareth who was known as a healer, but I have yet to get the hang of it.

My prayer for Shawn today is that he receives the mercy that he believed in and a nice warm bed so that he can finally rest in peace. And when I get to the other side, I hope he is handing out the bulletins at the door.

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¹ In case you didn’t know, the brochures are all wrong.

² The timing is particularly ominous.  We came to know Shawn in Malibu through the S.O.S. (Standing on Stone) ministry, the Artifac Tree thrift store, and the Malibu Community Labor Exchange–the first two organizations are now homeless themselves, and the third just received its own eviction notice.  It is sadly becoming easier to envision a scenario where we would never have met Shawn.