Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Kit Sfekas

Written: Tuesday, July 1, 2002


Last night Marcia, Sarah and I stopped by the funeral home to pay our respects to Kit Sfekas’ family. Kit was Sarah’s soccer coach for four or five years and a Howard County judge. At the family’s request, Sarah wore her soccer uniform shirt. He left behind two daughters (the oldest is 16) a wife, and probably thousands of people in the community whose lives he touched.

The line to get into the funeral home viewing parlor stretched outside for 300 feet. Cars were parked everywhere. A traffic cop was needed. We waited in line for more than an hour to make it into the viewing parlor. I can’t imagine how crowed today’s funeral was.

Kit touched a lot of lives and, from my acquaintance with him, seemed to be a wonderful person. Yet he’s gone at 49. And I can’t make sense of it. Rationalization doesn’t work. What’s more, there’s just blankness when I even try to think about it.

My last conversation with Kit was early winter at an indoor soccer match he was coaching. Kit mentioned he was fine except for the sore throat he just couldn’t seem to shake off and that he was going to have it looked at the next day. Thyroid gland cancer. He battled for four months and lost.

He won’t see his daughters graduate, and they won’t have her father there. I’m sure each milestone will be difficult for the family.

But death happens. It’s natural and it’s inevitable. Why is it such a shock, such a surprise and such a loss? What are we here for?

Kit lived his life fully. The girls on the teams he coached will carry a little of him with them the rest of their lives. I’m sure he had as great an impact on the people he worked with as well. But is that enough? Is having thousands of people pay tribute to you at your passing enough? Is that what life’s about?

Kit died quickly at the prime of life. Just four years ago he had achieved his life-long ambition to become a judge. He had graduations, marriages and grand kids ahead of him that he’ll never see. That’s the tragedy. That’s the loss. That’s the shock.

Death is inevitable but there’s no purpose or meaning in an untimely death. Just sadness and loss.

Rest in Peace, Kit. God bless your life and your family. You are missed.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Pretending


Written: December 7, 2001


“Oh yes, we’re the great pretenders…” So goes the song.

We pretend that the things we do and say, and even our lives, themselves, have purpose and meaning. I’m sure that all melts away in the days and hours prior to death. What is one life in the scheme of eternity and the universe?

A work colleague recently learned his sister-in-law has been diagnosed with in-operable bronchial cancer. She’s in her mid-50s. Another colleague’s niece gave birth to a stillborn child. He had quintuple bi-pass surgery earlier this fall (at age 47). My mom is heading toward diabetes, my dad has Alzheimer’s, and my in-laws will be 83. It all makes me contemplate my personal mortality.

And when I go, what will I leave behind? I’m not a wealthy man who will leave endowments, a name on buildings and scholarships behind. I’m not a great scientist, artist or philosopher. I’m just an average Joe who is trying to provide for his family and contribute to the success of others whose lives touch mine.

Yet there are so many needs – hunger, environment, learning, health, violence…. How can I help in a way that benefits generations to come?

Who knows. Meanwhile, I’ll just keep pretending it matters – that my life matters – and stay in denial about the reality of my demise. I guess that’s what most folks do -- until they can do it no more.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Uncle Sonny

Written: September 13, 1999

Last week was a week of losses. In started off when Uncle Sonny died 6:00 a.m. Sunday and ended with Marcia and me leaving Emily at Dartmouth.

Leaving Emily, although a loss, didn’t feel so bad. It was a natural progression she and we have been preparing for her whole life. It’s a bitter sweet feeling -- we feel good for her, proud of her and we miss her. I guess mostly I miss the memories of Emily as a little girl and growing up. Moving to school underscores the fact that she is now an adult.

It’s different with Uncle Sonny. Although death is also a natural progression, it’s more final. We’ll never see him again. His death made me realize how much one person leaves a legacy in helping others. He gave me my first music lesson on the baritone he played. He modeled his musical talent for me in playing piano and singing. I think he was the spark that lit my career in music.

He left a non-musical legacy for me, as well. His fascination with space opened up this mystery for me. I remember walking down to the end of Tilbury Road to watch Sputnik go over. And I remember being under 10 and riding in the back seat of his car on an impossibly dark night with chills going up and down my spine as he talked about UFOs.

He also left his sense of humor. From making faces with his false teeth, to cars with hiccups to calling me “Uncle Danny,” he seemed to always have a humorous perspective on life. Even the discomfort of constant dialysis didn’t appear to dampen his spirits.

If this is his legacy to me, how much greater is it to all the lives he touched. And how much greater are all of our legacies than we imagine. Our everyday lives and the lives we touch are our greatest legacies. As I’m reading about in "Awakening the Buddha Within," right thinking, right speech and right actions – every day -- cannot be overdone.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Jim Conklin

Written: January 11, 1997


Jim was one of the best managers I’ve known. I learned a lot about managing with compassion, clarity and courage in working for him. I learned by listening to what Jim had to say and, more important, by watching what he did. Unlike many, his words and actions were in sync. He lived his beliefs.

But Jim was not just a manager. He was a model for living. He lived life with gusto and seemed to enjoy and spread joy wherever he went. I especially remember a trip we took to New York together to attend a Conference Board session on benefits when we both moved to LCS. We got there the night before and Jim took me to some dark, neighborhood restaurant in the basement of a Brownstone. The neighborhood was not exactly a tourist trap. I doubt it had seen a tourist for a hundred years or so. He thought the cab driver was ripping us off, so he just told him to stop and let us out. We walked the last ten blocks even though it was bitter cold and we were only wearing sports coats (but Jim was never cold, anyway). The tables were packed into a cramped room and I’m not certain the health department knew this restaurant existed. But it had entertainment! While we ate, a local Yiddish comedian told incredibly old and corny jokes. I can still hear Jim laughing at each one. It was contagious, I laughed too and I can’t help but laugh again as I remember Jim laughing.

Jim lived life well. I hope that part of him lives on in me as I try to learn from Jim’s life. I remember his management lessons. But more important I remember his life’s lesson -- to live and spread happiness and joy no matter what the circumstance.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Smokey

Written: July 11, 1996


My best friend, ever, was Smoky.

I must have been three or four when I first saw her. Dad was coming home from work and I was playing in the yard two doors down from my house. I thought it was unusual when he stopped to drive me the short distance home.

When I got in the car, I noticed a round, furry, gray ball in a box at my feet. I thought it was a new kind of toy ball until it moved. It was a puppy. My mom immediately named it Smokey.

Smokey was a mutt. I’m a mutt. We grew up together.

Smokey would listen to me like I’ve never been listened to since. I could sing to her, talk to her, tell her my deepest fears and worries and she never tired of listening or gave me less than her full attention.

She guarded me. She’d follow me on my treks and adventures in the woods -- never more than a few feet away. When I fell on my back in the yard “dead,” she’d come running over and lick my face until I came back to life.

Smokey taught me (and my brother Dennis) to smile. When she was nervous, she’d show her teeth in a grin. My brother and I taught this to others.

When she was out exploring the neighborhood and I called her she’d come running from miles away.

All she asked for is an occasional stomach rub. She’d lie on her back, put her paws up in the air and stick out her tongue. This meant you were to rub your foot on her stomach.

She died when I was a high school junior. Her back legs went first. She’d drag herself around the house with her front paws to be near me.

She was my friend. She lives in my grin.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Death is Becoming Too Familiar

Written: July 15, 1996



Last month I was remembering cousin Ronnie and trying to deal with his death almost 30 years ago. Ironically, his father, Uncle Steve Zurick, died, unexpectedly, last week. Steve was 72 and had driven himself to the hospital for minor out-patient surgery on a skin cancer. Before anything started, he had a massive heart attack in the wheelchair as he was being moved around the hospital. That’s the story of how he died.

Why is it we always need the story. The first question after hearing the news is “how did he die?” It’s as if by knowing, we can avoid going that way. If we hear enough ways that people die and can avoid them all, we’ll live forever!

I felt for my cousin Judy. Besides losing her brother, Ronnie, and her dad, she had lost her husband several years ago to cancer, leaving behind three small boys. Of the Zurick family, her dad’s death seem to have the strongest immediate impact on her. It will come to the others later -- they’re too busy being strong for each other.

I used to be deathly afraid of death. It was a mysterious stranger I didn’t want to meet.

• Great-grandma Nanny -- 1967
• Cousin Ronnie -- 1969
• Granddad Brown -- 1973
• Grandma Huffman -- 1986
• Grandma Brown -- 1990
• Granddad Huffman -- 1994
• Uncle Dick -- 1994
• Aunt Alice -- 1994
• Uncle Steve -- 1996


I know the questions to ask. I know what to say to the grieving. I know how to look up the obituary, order the flowers or make the memorial contribution. I know where the funeral home is and the undertaker nods to me as he recognizes a familiar face.

Death is becoming too familiar now.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Death of Dare-Devil Dan

Written: July 15, 1996


When I was in high school, I picked up the name Dare-Devil Dan at work one day by climbing on top a fifteen-foot-high, precariously stacked delivery of row boats and handing them down -- removing my own footing with each one. The name really fit. I was always doing something a little on the edge -- taking the metal power boat out to get the rowboats off the lake before (and during) approaching thunder storms; descending into the septic tank, ankle deep in septic tank contents to hand broken pumps up to the plumber (who refused to go down and get them); crawling up the spill-pipe and up the spill tower on a lark; and... we’ll, you get the idea. This all came to an end, abruptly, one day about twenty years later.

We were on vacation - camping in Nova Scotia when I decided to take a little swim. The park surrounded a mile-deep glacier lake. I decided to swim from the beach to a point I could see on the horizon. I’d been doing laps in the pool back home so I thought I was up to it.

Right before I dove in, Emily, who was 4, came running out of the water screaming. I had to pull a leech off her leg. This gave me pause as I contemplated how many leeches I could accumulate on my swim. Were there worse things, like turtles, that would be snipping at very important appendages? Being the dare devil that I am, I dove in the clear, cold, root-beer colored water and began to conquer the lake.

The trip over was uneventful. But the point was a lot farther away than I thought. It took a half an hour to complete the swim. I noticed that from the water, the earth’s curvature blocked the sight of the beach where Marcia and Emily were waiting for me. Once I got to the point, I decided to keep exploring and swim to the next point I could now see. I guess I was on some kind of exercise/conquering high. I made it with ease. But swimming back from the new point is when it happened -- the weather turned.

About half-way back, the wind started to pick up. A storm was brewing. At first, I took little notice of it. Gradually, I began to notice that the waves were getting quite large and it was difficult to make progress. After ten minutes or so of trying to make what had been a ten-minute swim, I took my bearings. I realized I had made no progress! I was exactly in the middle of nowhere -- half-way between the two points and going nowhere fast. The waves were getting bigger, I knew I couldn’t last forever, there was no one else around on this wilderness lake. I knew Marcia would have the Royal Canadian Mounted Police dragging the lake for my body any minute now. Then it happened -- I panicked.

I had always heard that you were not supposed to panic. I think “don’t panic” was a regular part of my internal vocabulary. I learned panic is not exactly under voluntary control. I could feel the warm panic in my chest and it was getting warmer. About that time, I later found out, Marcia heard me distinctly call her. I know I made no sound.

Miraculously, a canoe appeared a few hundred feet away! No doubt it is was piloted by some experienced outdoors-men on a month-long hunting expedition. I was saved! I called out to them in my calm, John Wayne voice. “Hi! Any chance of getting a little help?” The answer almost made that warm chest feeling come back, “We don’t know. This is our first time in a canoe.” I continued being John Wayne, “I could use some help. I’m in a little bit of trouble here.”

They responded that they’d try to help me. I watched as they flailed at the water trying to make the canoe come closer to me and contemplated whether it would be better to drown or to be beat to death with canoe paddles.

They came close enough for me to grab a line. They towed me to the opposite point. I was on land but I was wet, cold, tired and still a half-hour swim away from Marcia and Emily. I thought about walking the shoreline back, but I was barefoot, the shore was rocky and it would probably take all day. Marcia would panic.

Instead, I walked along the shore to the point where the opposite shore was closest and began my swim back at a hard angle away from my ultimate destination -- allowing for the waves and current to push my forward motion sideways to my ultimate goal.

I didn’t drown. But dare-devil Dan did. I realized that with a young child and pregnant wife, I needed to take a tad fewer risks from now on.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

When Cousin Ronnie Died

Written: June 17, 1996



A child dying is a tragic thing.

When I was a freshman in college, my cousin Ronnie, a senior in high school died. He was operating a backhoe on one of his father’s construction jobs, working on a steep bank. The machine tipped over and rolled over him, crushing his skull and killing him instantly.

The telephone rang. It was my mother giving me the news. (How did people learn of death before the telephone?)

I felt guilty. We had been at a camp together when were in elementary school. We both had poison ivy but he had forgotten to bring any treatment for it. I selfishly wouldn’t share my Ruli-Cream. (The salt-water pool cured both of our cases of poison ivy that week, anyway).

My aunt and uncle and Ronnie’s older brother and younger sister seemed to handle it well, by the time I saw them. I particularly remember my aunt Shirley remembering things Ronnie would have said and smiling as we talked in her kitchen after the funeral. But death changes the survivors.

Shortly after Ronnie’s death, my uncle retired from construction. He and my aunt changed churches and opened a religious book store.

Ronnie’s brother and sister are grown and have kids -- some older that Ronnie when he died. Whenever I see them, I remember Ronnie and wonder if there’s still the emptiness buried somewhere deep within them -- like it is in me.

I miss Ronnie.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Why I Write About Death

From time time over the last 13 years, I've written about death. Usually, these writings are prompted by the death of someone close to me. When someone close to us dies, it, temporarily, snaps us into the the reality our own demise.

Sometimes I write to help me handle my own grief. But sometimes, it's just to contemplate the reality of finite time. It's not morbid curiosity, though. Death is part of life, as ironic as that sounds.

I think I best captured my general thoughts on death toward the end of 2002, when my dad was dying.


Written: December 30, 2002


I’m reading Steven Ambrose’s last book. He wrote it knowing he was dying of cancer. In fact, he dedicated it to his doctor and nurses. With my dad dying, death is on my mind. But I think it almost always is on my mind and on everyone’s mind (once they leave teenage years). Why is this so? Why do we read the obituaries? Why do so many conversations turn to morbidity stories?

I think it’s because we have an unconscious belief that by talking about another’s death, we affirm that we’re alive. Maybe we feel that if we talk about death, that it won’t happen to us! After all, what's the first question we ask? "What did he die from?" If we don't suffer from the same ailment, then we can assure ourselves of immortality.

I chide myself for continuing to dwell on this topic, but I think it’s misdirected chiding. Meditating on the inevitability of death makes life all the sweeter. It makes us conscious of how we’re “spending our life” (an interesting phrase).

The chiding comes from feeling that once I figure death out, I should let it go and move on to thinking about other things. The reality is death is the ultimate thing. I won’t figure it out. No one will. So, I’ll spend the rest of my life contemplating on how I’m “investing” my life.

The only thing that I'm sure of is that I want to earn a good return on my investment – to benefit people living now and in the future. That’s all anyone can do. Use the circumstances of time and place to do the best you can. It will be enough.

*******

The next series of posts will follow, in chronological order, past writings on death. Who knows, maybe there's a germ of value in this for someone.