Editor’s note: This is John Carlson’s last column for MuncieJournal.com. We are very, very saddened to report John passed away peacefully last night at his home. John brought happiness to so many, many people with his columns and books during a journalistic career that spanned decades in East Central Indiana. He wrote this last column for us about one week ago. Like so much of his writing, it is a poignant, inspirational, and timely story. Information about services for John are below. Our hearts go out to his family. God bless you, John…
By John Carlson—
One confounding thing about getting older is the people you encounter while reading obituaries invariably get younger.
There was a time when the folks I’d commonly see pictured could have been ripped from a history textbook, so remote did they seem. Now I’ll read a death notice and think, wasn’t she the funny one who worked just down the hall? Or someone will stare solemnly from his obit picture and I’ll say, wait a minute. Weren’t we drinking beer back in the day when that guy gave some poor dude the mother of all wedgies?
Weird, maybe, but these are the sort of contextual changes that bring the truth of mortality into focus. Lately I’ve been thinking about this. Maybe it’s the weather. We’ve had a spate of dreary days lately. More likely it’s the book Nancy and I recently read on our Kindles, one she was introduced to through her church book club. Written by Sallie Tisdale, a nurse whose literary work has appeared in no less august a publication than The New Yorker, it gets my nod for most intriguing, though slightly discomfiting, title of a book I’ve ever read.
It’s called “Advice for Future Corpses.”
That would be me, I guess, not to mention you. In her book, Tisdale offers wisdom and advice gained from many death encounters in her personal and professional life. What to say. What not to say. What to do. What not to do. What to think. What not to think. That’s far too simplistic an overview of it, but it’s mostly a primer on compassion filtered through her beliefs as a practicing Buddhist. This shouldn’t scare you, though, even if you’re a rock-ribbed Methodist. It’s all based on common sense and practical thought.
The main goal of her book, I think, is to help allay the fear factor inherent in end-of-life issues.
That’s not to say life’s final stage is something anybody should want to rush right into. I think I have a fairly healthy – which in this case, is a poor choice of word – attitude toward death and dying. I love Beech Grove Cemetery, where Nancy and I own a plot on a hillside in which our ashes will eventually be interred. I’ve been known to joke that ours is in an up-and-coming neighborhood for a burial ground, being located just a stone’s throw from some classy friends’ future plots. It’s also directly downwind from the restaurant where my pilots group meets weekly for breakfast. So even when I’m eternally grounded (or as Tisdale puts it in one jarring but humorous reference, taking my “dirt nap”), I’ll still get to smell the bacon.
However, sometimes Nancy suggests we go shopping for our grave marker, just to have it ready and in place when the time comes, hopefully seventy or eighty years from now. I always agree that’s a task I’m anxious to check off our combined honey-do list. But so far something – a haircut, shopping for new furnace filters, an overwhelming need to stock up on Snickers bars – always seems to get in my way. Deep down, I sometimes ask, am I afraid that buying a grave marker will put a checkmark inside the “Ready for delivery” box on some cosmic death notice with my name on it?
Maybe. But then I think, naaah …
At this point in life, mostly I’m just very grateful not to dread what’s coming. Tisdale doesn’t address this much in her book, but I think close personal association with death makes a big difference. Practices from years long past, when most folks died at home and were laid out in the family parlor, promoted it as a sad but natural fact of life. Exposure to it, while painfully acquired, steeled one to its reality and, in its own way, offered some measure of comfort and hope.
My first real exposure to it began forty-five years ago, inside an ambulance parked in front of Muncie Civic Theatre. It was during an earlier marriage, another lifetime ago for me, and this particular Saturday night our baby boy was being delivered into this world more than two months prematurely. Now, this would be survivable. Back then, almost invariably, it wasn’t. Taken to BMH, he was then rushed to Riley Children’s Hospital. It was there I soon found myself sitting alone, praying for hours outside the room where my son was being treated with the best that modern medicine could offer. Every now and then, a kind young doctor came out to give me updates, but as the day dragged on, it became obvious where this was headed.
The young doctor came back out one last time. Did I want to hold my son’s hand through one of the ports in his incubator? God knows I did want to, and God knows I should have. But at the door, I froze. “I can’t,” I told the doctor, shakily, absolutely terrified of the crashing depth of emotion I knew would bury me in there. “I’m sorry, I just can’t.”
And turning around, I left.
Minutes later I was heading back home, driving through a mental fog to where my then-wife remained hospitalized. Early the next morning, about to head back to Riley, I got the call I knew was inevitable but hoped never to get.
Through the funeral, then the days, weeks, months and even years that followed, I was left reeling by the feelings weighing on me, including the depth of my depression. First and foremost, though, was the heartache, sharper than I could ever have imagined, for the son who had so briefly shared my life. There was pride, too, at how he had fought to live. But beyond that, I was equally shocked at how his passing forever changed the way I would now consider my own. My little boy had done it bravely, so how could I not do that, too? The thought of being where he was, whenever it happened, suddenly didn’t frighten me at all. A part of me almost welcomed it.
In the years since, years shared with the beautiful wife, daughter, son and daughter-in-law life later saw fit to bless me with, that feeling has never changed.
Whatever your belief, whatever the truth, we all have an irrevocable rendezvous with the end. And the simple fact is, nobody knows more about it than anyone else, from the wisest scientists, philosophers and theologians to the most witless among us.
I am just grateful to ponder it, not with fear, but with wonder.