Birth, death and living in between

May 25, 2009

Last week, the phone rang in the wee hours. When a call comes that early, it's rarely good news. This one bore the worst kind of all.

The day before, a dear friend's husband, Ralph, had been doing some mowing at their rural property in northern Indiana. His wife (my friend Cheryl) was at work in Fort Wayne.

Feeling ill, Ralph still had the wherewithal to call 911. A rescue team arrived. He was treated locally, then airlifted to Fort Wayne's Parkview Hospital. The trauma physicians did what they could, but the heart attack had done too much damage. Ralph was 61.

A few days later, as I parked at the funeral home for Ralph's calling, my iPhone vibrated. There was an e-mail message from my son Austin, a college student in Wisconsin. He'd finally sent me one of his short stories—the one his classmates and creative writing professor had liked so much earlier in the semester. Austin's cover message said, "Sorry it isn't cheerier. I'll try for comedy later."

Sitting in my car in the funeral home parking lot, the sun setting in front of me, I opened the attachment and started to read.

I read about Nathan and Sarah. I read about Nathan's dream that Sarah wanted him to kill her. I read about Sarah's worsening Alzheimer's disease. How she sometimes wandered off. How she occasionally cursed Nathan. How she often didn't recognize him.

I read how she embarrassed people in church. How they avoided confrontations and conversations with her and Nathan. How she stared at her own grandsons, uncertain and uncomprehending.

I read flashbacks about the blossoming love between Sarah and Nathan. How she'd caught him cheating once. How her diagnosis had come.

I read how Sarah had done her homework about her disease. How she'd asked Nathan to help her end her life when the time came. How he'd promised he would.

And I read how, despite her recurrent pleas, he'd reneged on that commitment time and again—out of love, or selfishness, or uncertainty that "the time" would ever be right.

When I finished Austin's story, I shut off the iPhone, closed the car door and walked into the funeral home.

Inside, I stood in a long line with other callers. Along the way, there were pictures of Ralph and Cheryl, pictures of Ralph on the job, pictures of Ralph with friends and family.

As we waited to share our condolences, people talked about how sad it was that Ralph's death was so sudden and so unexpected.

And surely, that is true.

But I couldn't help thinking about Austin's short story. And the agonies of Alzheimer's he'd imagined.

And I couldn't help thinking about the Alzheimer's series I'd watched on HBO the week before, and the real-life stories of death prolonged.

And I couldn't help thinking about the years of cancer that took the life of Austin's stepmom, and how he, his brother and I have struggled with her sudden collapse, and middle-of-the-night death and the absence of some final farewell.

When I looked up, Cheryl was standing in front of me. I hugged her. I told her how sorry I was. And what a good guy Ralph was. And having been through this myself, I promised that I'd be there for her if and when all the other people went back to their daily lives.

Then I stepped aside for the next person in line.

A week to the day after that call about Ralph, my wife and I received some more early-morning news. This time, it was all positive: Our friend Janine had delivered her baby.

Janine had gone into the hospital the day before, with hopes of successfully inducing her overdue-child's birth. But her daughter was apparently reluctant to begin the next phase of her life, so a C-section was required.

When she finally arrived in the world, Daphne Raye weighed in at nine pounds, four ounces and was 22 inches long.

Inevitably, the refrain of an old Blood, Sweat and Tears tune popped into my head: And when I die, And when I'm dead, dead and gone, There'll be one child born And a world to carry on, To carry on. That same song contains a healthy perspective on life and death: "All I ask of living is to have no chains on me, and all I ask of dying is to go naturally."

The problem is, we don't get to choose our exits—the natural ones, at least—and we don't get to choose the timing. So whether we go slowly and painfully for everyone affected, or quickly but painfully for those left behind, there's no easy and graceful way out, no guaranteed good-bye. Lacking that, we've only one recourse: to live and love each day as though it were our first and last.

Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.

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