Tag Archives: Lessons from Death

A Rose for a Butterfly

This Friday, February 7, 2014, I have a medical appointment that will put me near the grave of someone I love very much. Her name is Laura A. VerDow Santelli. She died on February 20, 2010. Like the previous years, I will put a single red rose at her grave.

I know that she is not there, not really, only the shell of her body that her soul left behind, but it is my way of remembering her. I do this for my parents as well. I buy a bouquet of flowers and spread them on their graves. I could not do it last year as I did not travel to the state of my birth. I will this year. My parents names are Virginia and William.

David Eagleman in his book, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, wrote “There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.”

Mom, Dad and Laura, your third death has not come for I have not forgotten you and I promise to speak your names.

I look forward to placing a rose on Laura’s grave. She was my Butterfly. She loved life and was full spirited and fun loving. I do miss her and love her very much. Remember those that have passed on and say their names. Remember them for that is how they stay in our hearts. Because all of us, like my Butterfly, will have to fly off someday leaving our bodies behind.

Taken Too Young

I would have entitled this ‘Taken Too Soon’, but as I am not the Lord of Time, it is not mine to say when is too soon. Last weekend, Theresa’s nephew passed away suddenly. He suffered a medical malady throughout his life. Although this malady restricted our culture’s expectations of this young man, he touched the lives of very many. During the viewing there were hundreds of people who paid respects to the family. There was a steady stream of visitors for four hours. His mother told Theresa that her son knew each one of them.

In this young man’s life, he made an impact on many individuals. He always greeted everyone with a smile and a big “Hi.” He lived in the moment. He loved movies and excelled at remembering the dialog. He loved live music. And he loved to dance (see a video of him below). In his short life, he taught those around him to accept that which cannot be changed and enjoy the moments as they come.

He died much too young. A few months ago, a young girl passed away from cancer. She passed much too young. I still do not understand why medical maladies afflict those so young. I never will.

These young people teach us that life is uncertain, that the end can come at any time. They teach us that we must appreciate the time that we have. That time is fleeting and that our life is precious. Our life should not be wasted on things that waste our time or does not help us grow. This is a lesson that that we all can appreciate. Thanks Matt.

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Born to Earth, Born to Eternity

I have been away from the blog for the past three weeks. I have been busy in and out of the hospital with Theresa and her father. Fortunately, Theresa is getting better. Unfortunately, Theresa’s father passed away on the 18th. He was 96 years old. In his life, he touched many lives. He worked as a lawyer and served on planning boards throughout the area. Theresa is one of eight. He worked hard to support his large family.

I could tell the lasting impact he had on his children. Not only was he surrounded by his children in his final days, but was visited numerous times each week for many years prior. He had a long, wonderful life on earth, and I have no doubt that he has begun his new life in the eternal as well. He will also continue to live here in the hearts and minds of those who loved and knew him.

Religions, or the lack of, have strived to explain or answer the question as to what happens after death.  Some believe that there is nothing after death – we’re here and then we die and that is the end of the story. Some believe in the journey of the soul to be transferred into the body of a newborn. Others believe that the soul is reborn into any creation, not necessarily human. Others believe that souls spend eternity in Heaven or Hell. Often people believe a combination of these, not really sure what to believe.

I believe that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. Jesus died for all of us. There are those who defiantly resist God, and they will be dealt with as God sees fit. It is not my place to judge.

Funerals are for the living. They are a ceremony, not only to celebrate the life of the one is no longer alive on earth, but to support the family and say our goodbyes. It is part of the grieving process. Theresa’s father’s funeral was a positive one. I enjoyed listening to the memories and stories. Even though there were lots of tears and crying, it was wonderful to learn how he had touched the lives of so many people.

I was in the Army and so was Theresa’s father. He had military honors at the graveyard. A musician played taps on a very soulful bugle. It brought a tear to my eye. The carefully folded flag was presented to Theresa’s oldest sister.

Charles Spurgeon said, “When the time comes for you to die, you need not be afraid, because death cannot separate you from God’s love.”  I know for sure, that even in death, Theresa’s father will never be separated from the love of his family and friends.

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We are not who we were

As we live our lives, from the moment of our birth, we are constantly changing. Each new experience causes us to learn and as we mature, presents us with decisions to make. We must choose how to act or react to each experience. We must choose to learn a lesson from each experience or choose to ignore the lesson presented. We all have read of examples of people who persevered through adversity to become great men and women of our times. We also know of people who spiraled downward and never found the courage to recover.

I am not the same person I was 5 years ago, 10 years ago, or even 20 years ago. I was a nerdy teenager, then a so-so soldier, then a hard working warehouse grunt, and finally a husband and father. All the while I was growing in and out of my faith, trying to find out where I was to be. I am still growing and will continue to grow. Like many persons excited by their faith, I was too zealous and in my excitement, I probably turned many people off. I have mellowed with age.

I have learned through my marriage and relationships that working very hard to renew your love and desire everyday is absolutely necessary. This is not what I did at first. This took time and maturity. I am still learning and always will.

People do change, but a person must be open to change or forced to change through their circumstances. You can’t change anyone, but you can help them change through support and creating circumstances that are conducive to change. All of us change and learn each and every day. Even Jesus in his youth became wise and grew strong. (Luke 2:52).  Our journey of change and learning never ends until we pass from this earth, and after that, who knows.

Our world, our knowledge, our beliefs, our likes and dislikes are ever changing. For instance, have you ever re-read an inspirational reading and it says something different to you this time than the last time? This happens to me. My perceptions change. My viewpoint changes. Arguments and decisions change based on new information and new understanding. Our life is in constant flux. I am not who I was. I am who I am now, but changing every day, hopefully for the better. I make mistakes. I try to learn from them, but if not, I am sure God will present me with the lesson again.

Pay attention to the wonderful gifts and blessings around you. Learn and know that you are loved. Take care, stay well and be safe.

A Walk in a Cemetery

Before I moved to Holley, NY, I walked my dog in open fields that lay near my home. I do not have such fields available to me in Holley but there is a forest behind a nearby cemetery. I actually find it quite interesting to walk amongst the headstones on the way to the forest floor. The cemetery has been around quite a long time with stones declaring dates into the early 1800s.

The information provided by the headstones varies widely, with some just holding a name and age. Other stones list family members and the departed’s relationship to others. Very few of the stones mention occupation except that there is a section dedicated to those who have fallen in battle. I am not surprised that the most important aspect of a persons life is their relationship to others.

I read some of the headstones and think: what were they like; what did they do; who’s life did they touch. The stones report ages from a few days to nearly a hundred years. Death is indiscriminate. Death is no respecter of lineage, wealth or position. Scanning the headstones, I am reminded that life is so precious. Every one of those stones represent one or more persons. Each of those persons lived a life, no matter how short or long, that touched others. Their life is contained in the dash between the dates. However, the stones that record the death of a child make me wonder why they had died. Was a simple childhood disease that is now cured by simple vaccinations responsible for their early demise? Was it an accident that ended their short, sweet life?

Regardless of the age stated on the stone, I view their lives on this earth as short ones. I myself have been alive for more than five decades, and they passed so quickly. In the older part of the graveyard, the residents have been lying there much longer than they were ever alive. Some have been in the cemetery so long that the carvings in the soapstone wore away.

I like reading the older names: Hattie, Cedric, Lucretia, Judson, and Louisa come to mind. I also remember seeing Prudence and my all time favorite thus far; Silence.

We are here but a short time. Our names and dates may be etched in stone for centuries to come, or maybe not. It is the life we live, the lives we touch, the people we love that is important, now and tomorrow.

Each day is precious. We cannot reclaim the past. Once it has gone by, we cannot go back. We need to make each day count. Live life well. Let those you love know that you love them. Impact the world by your interactions with each individual. Change the world one person at a time.

The cemetery is a quiet place where stories remain untold. I will walk my dog through the grounds to the forest behind. I am sure the residents do not mind. I hope that this finds you well. I hope that you are fit and healthy. I hope that you will make that dash mean something. Take care.

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Lessons from Death – Conclusion?

If you missed Part One you can find it here Lessons from Death – Part One

   Unlike my mother’s sudden departure where I had difficulty accepting her death, I had let go of my father.  I was at peace with his passing.  I do miss him of course.  I also miss my mother.

   Some families truly come together during funerals.  There is an urge to reconnect to family in the view of the loss.  It represents changes in relationships and family dynamics.  Funerals can remind us of our own inevitable fate and the preciousness of those left alive.  For most of us, the death of someone close causes us to reflect on their lives as well as our own.  Our minds sort through the memories and amplify the attached emotions.  We remember the good in them.  The recollections give us comfort.  Missing my parents is a reminder of how much they meant to me. 

   Life is precious and fragile.  Life can begin and end in moments.  Death is not just for the aged.  Accidents, violence, and disease can take us from the world at any age.  Life IS a precious thing.  Those we love are precious, precious enough to warrant our time and presence.  The little things that really don’t matter fill our lives until we are too busy for anyone, including ourselves.  Watching life slowly losing its grip on my father made many things seem very unimportant.  This is a lesson I am still learning.  It takes practice.  It takes time.  Each of us is allotted just 24 hours each day.  Decide who and what are important and then pay attention.

   I watched my father seek moments that were filled with life, while his own was slipping away.  Add to the lives of those you care about.  Take time to let people know you care.  Life is to be shared; live it.  Life is finite; share it now.  Life is precious; appreciate it.  What is most important is that we live life so that we are fulfilled so that we can help others live until they just can’t live anymore.

   Take care, stay well, and be safe.

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Lessons from Death – Part Five

If you missed Part One you can find it here Lessons from Death – Part One

   The older of my sisters (they are both younger than me) drove to Upstate NY to be with her father. My younger sister refused to come, her pain and anger kept her from her father’s side.

   On my father’s last day among us, he seemed to perk up just a bit. He held my hand, looked into my eyes and said, “Don’t worry, Harry, I’m going to be all right.” I was so relieved. He made it through another storm. He laid back and smiled. He died just a few hours later in my arms.

   Just minutes before his death, my sister had gone to my home to rest from her long trip. After saying “I love you, Dad; I’ll miss you,” into his ear as he passed. I felt his body collapse. I thought about my older sister. I ran to the lobby and frantically called her on my cell phone. I was so afraid she would be upset. I was wrong. She WAS upset that he passed but not upset that she wasn’t there. She told me that Dad knew she wouldn’t want to watch him die so he waited until she left. I am not sure if that was true but I accepted it as so.

   The nurses did some quick paperwork. They called a grief counselor for me. We hugged and cried. I went to the hospital chapel, still in tears, and prayed. God answered, “Don’t worry, Harry, he’s going to be all right.” I let go of my selfish desire to keep my father here on earth and gladly gave him over to my God. I hope God puts him in a garden. He was always happy in a garden.

Follow this link to Lessons from Death – Conclusion?

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Lessons from Death – Part Four

If you missed Part One you can find it here Lessons from Death – Part One

   Just before my father’s final ambulance ride, I woke up and made my way to the kitchen as I did every morning. I was startled to find my father, folded against his bed face down. I immediately went to him, dropping to my knees. I shook him. He responded with a weak moan. I thanked God he was alive. How long had he been like that? Minutes? Hours? I had no idea. I called 9-1-1. They asked how long he had been down. I could only answer that I didn’t know.

   Within a few hours, my father was alert. By that time, he was getting IV fluids and a blood transfusion. He kept asking me what had happened. I had no answers for him. He could not recollect anything that had happened. As far as he knew, he just woke up in the hospital.

   He was admitted to the hospital for observation. This began his final week among us. My father actually seemed to be doing well. Phew! We thought, another crisis over. It seemed as though we had just breathed a sigh of relief when my father developed a high fever. The doctors and nurses worked hard to control his raging infection. His immune system had already been compromised. He just couldn’t fight it.

   A health proxy, completed much earlier, stated his wishes against feeding tubes and artificial ventilation in favor of a natural passing. A “do not resuscitate” order was already in place. I tell you this because he refused to eat. I agonized between letting him refuse nutrition or forcing him to eat. I tried to feed him fortified pudding but he begged me to stop. I felt helpless. He told me, “Harry, I just can’t do this anymore.” Now, I really felt helpless.

   His doctor held a conference with my girlfriend, my sons, and me. He explained that all they were doing was not affecting the outcome. I made the very difficult decision to honor my father’s wishes and allow him a natural death. He would be made as comfortable as possible until the end. I was letting him go. I desired to and hated to. The anguish of it all stunned me. I would learn later that my youngest sister considered my decision “the killing of her father.” She no longer talks to me.

   The next contribution to this series describes the final letting go and my initial misunderstanding of my father’s last words to me.

Follow this link to Lessons from Death – Part Five

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Lessons from Death – Part Three

If you missed Part One you can find it here Lessons from Death – Part One

   The sudden request from my father to move in with us caught me off guard. He was to be released from the rehabilitation center two days after he asked to live with me. My sister packed some of his things. She put together his finances so that I could take those with me. He had only been to Upstate NY once before. He always thought it was too far to drive. Somehow, it was much closer for me to drive to Maryland with my car packed with luggage, wife, and kids. In his mind, I’m sure I did live closer to him than he did to me.

   He enjoyed the trip. I believe he saw it as a new adventure. He seemed more energetic and excited as we drew near to our destination. After an eight-hour ride, we arrived at my home, a home my father had never seen before. He seemed pleased with his new surroundings. The very next day he was planning to turn my back yard into a garden. I had to explain to him that the park that I live in had certain restrictions concerning gardens. I told him that I would think of something.

   My father loved western shows and movies. Luckily, our cable company had a channel dedicated to such a genre. The livingroom TV was set to that station for him. He never did get the hang of the remote. I went to the library and signed out large print books for him to read. I spent most of my time that week preparing our livingroom to be a proper place for my father to stay. He had much more energy than I had expected. His spirits were greatly lifted. He begged to help with the cooking. I was very pleased to witness what I thought was a recovery. I assembled a team of doctors for his care.

   A newsletter was designed and published so that it could be sent to his friends (they weren’t all dead afterall) and family so everyone could be informed as to his progress. A new edition of the newsletter went out every two or three weeks. I purchased an amplified phone so that loved ones could call. He was very hard of hearing and did not have much luck with those “fangled” hearing aids.

   He did surprisingly well until Spring, his favorite time of year. That is when the planting begins. He had supported himself with a cane, but the cane no longer proved sufficient. We borrowed a wheelchair for him. He was so disappointed. He wanted to be in the garden, any garden. My neighbor told me about square foot gardening as an alternative. It was a great idea. Then God improved on the idea – He inspired me to think garden tables! Take the square foot garden idea and elevate it to a level that would accept a wheelchair. My father was so happy. He brightened up again. He was just like a child with a brand new toy.

   He didn’t see much of the harvest from those tables. He grew ever tired and more ill shortly after working on the garden tables. I realize now that his excitement and energy was much like a bulb that burns ever brighter before going dim. His illness finally caught up with him. Soon he would have his last ride in an ambulance.

   Doing all this for my Dad was a wonderful task and a loving struggle. The most profound lesson I learned from this is that you don’t help people die, you help them live until they just can’t live any more.

   The next contribution will explore his last days and the incredible preciousness of life and letting go. Until next time, take care, stay well and be safe.

Follow this link to Lessons from Death – Part Four

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Lessons from Death – Part Two

If you missed Part One, you can find it here Lessons from Death – Part One

My father always checked the obituary page in the paper first.  He said it was to make sure that he wasn’t listed.  For the longest while, he would attend many of the funerals of people or families that he knew.  It probably isn’t true, but it seemed as though my father knew most of the families in the county.  If he didn’t attend the funeral, then sometimes he would stop and deliver his condolences to the family home in person.

   My father’s “funeral” ministry ended when my mother died.  He stopped going to funerals.  He said that funerals were too painful, that it reminded him too much of losing my mother.  I would have thought that it would have made consoling others even more meaningful but I suppose that the pain was too great.  The only funeral that he attended after my mother’s death, at least that I’m aware of, was that of his own mother.

   My father suffered from multiple cancers for over five years.  He lived with my sister, who worked a lot of overtime hours.  Early on, my father remained quite independent, but as his illness progressed, his geographic world began to shrink.  I had asked him to come live with my family and me.  He turned down this invitation time and time again, stating that his friends lived in Maryland.  He spent most of his life in Cecil County, Maryland.  I live in Upstate New York.

   In late 2005, my father’s cancer tightened its grip on his life.  He was in and out of hospital and rehabilitation.  Chemotherapy and blood transfusion became more regular.  He participated in a drug study that, I believe, extended his life.

   In January 2006, my father, exhausted from his long fight, asked if he could live with me – to spend his last days with me.  This was an incredibly emotional request for me to consider.  Of course, I blurted out “Yes” right away.

  I asked, “What about your friends?”

  “They are all dead,” my father replied.  I knew that was not true, but I did not protest his answer.

   This was the last leg of my father’s journey and an incredible path that was an honor and a great privilege for me to travel.

   To be continued…

Follow this link to Lessons from Death – Part Three

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