When You Stumble Across Death’s Door

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The one absolute truth about life is that the minute we are born we begin to die. Pretty depressing if you think about it. So what’s the point of life if as soon as we get here we start heading for the exit? There is a point but I’m getting ahead of myself. We generally don’t become aware of death until we are much, much older. When you are young you’re usually too absorbed in life or some exciting aspect of it to even notice or think about what death is all about.

One of my very first memories was being about four years old. My family was living in Harlingen, Texas at the time. My dad was stationed at a United States Air force base there and my mother was a stay at home mom raising my two brothers and me. My dad had bought two houses in Harlingen and we lived in one and rented out the other one. We only went to the base for doctor visits or for groceries at the PX. One of my first memories was being at home one day in the kitchen with my mother. That day I was valiantly trying to talk to my mom. I remember looking at her and mouthing words while I stared at her expectantly for some sign that I had actually spoken. I remember her nodding with approval; she did what mothers are supposed to do encourage their children. I loved my mom. Of course the only thing that came out of my mouth that day was gibberish but I remember being proud of my effort just the same. Another memory I recall was thinking that I couldn’t wait until I was big enough to see over our bathroom sink. It’s funny what sticks in your mind when you’re a kid.

In fact that whole period of my life was filled with nothing but memories of all the new things life introduced to me. Each day seemed to be a new adventure. I vividly remember watching the Wizard of Oz one night with the family and the next day actually seeing a witch flying on a broom as I played in the back yard. I was awed and amazed. I also remember going to school with anticipation to see what new food was going to be served at lunch that day. They served us things I never got to eat at home. The school cafeteria was a gastronomical adventure land. Every day it seemed life would give me something new to wonder at.

Because my dad was in the air force we moved regularly. From Harlingen we moved to Barksdale. Barksdale had a Strategic Air Command base and was just outside of Shreveport, Louisiana. My dad flew KC-97s for SAC at the time. He spent months away from us refueling B-52s and B-58 hustlers loaded with hydrogen bombs flying the artic circle during the cold war. SAC flew that route 24-7 and my dad was very busy. General Curtis Lemay was the commander of SAC then. He was so controversial the movie “Dr. Strangelove” was modeled after SAC under General Lemay. When we got to Barksdale we lived on the base for a bit and then moved to town and lived in a house. Barksdale was where I got introduced to girls. I was seven years old and life was good. The adventures never stopped.

We then moved to Lincoln, Nebraska when I was about eight. My dad was stationed at the SAC command headquarters in Omaha. This being the height of the cold war, he was gone a lot. Lincoln, Nebraska was also where I first encountered death. It was on a small scale but it was devastating to me just the same.

I was into hamsters back then. I had one as a pet and I loved that little rodent. I was constantly playing with him and he seemed to enjoy me as much as I enjoyed him. The bad thing about me having a hamster then was my dad loved cats and we had one. Our cat loved my hamster too. My hamster lived in a cage suspended from my ceiling. I remember one day coming in my bedroom and seeing the bottom of the cage on the floor. My hamster was nowhere to be found but I did find a scrap of fur and some unidentifiable stuff on the floor. I immediately knew what had happened. The f’ing cat had eaten him! I screamed for my mother who flew into the room to find me crying uncontrollably on the bed. My mother tried to console me but it was useless. She tried to explain that it wasn’t the cat’s fault and why it had happened but I was inconsolable. I was devastated: so much for my first introduction to death.

My next brush with death came as a very personal encounter. After our stay in Lincoln, Nebraska my dad retired from the Air Force and we moved to Denton, Texas. We moved to Denton because it was a small college town and my dad had decided to go to school there. One Saturday my dad had gone to the college for a class. That early afternoon my mother got a frantic phone call. She said nothing to us and rushed out. When she got home several hours later I found out that my dad had died of a massive heart attack. I was eleven years old and my dad was dead. That whole experience was thrust on me like a head on car crash.

My next brush came when I was about twenty-eight. I witnessed a murder. That’s right a murder. I witnessed a woman stick a chrome plated thirty-eight caliber Rossi revolver into a man’ side and pull the trigger. It happened just outside of a McDonald’s where I was having breakfast. I saw it all unfold outside the window I was sitting by. I later found out his wife was the woman who killed him. She had caught him having an affair with the young woman who had just served me my coffee and egg McMuffin. His death was brutal. There’s a moral here somewhere.

When I was fifty-seven and again when I turned sixty-one I had two close friends die. The odd thing about their deaths was I spoke to each of them literally hours before they died. Mike was a close friend and working companion. When I was fifty-seven he called me one day out of the blue just to talk. In speaking to him I could tell something was dreadfully wrong with him. It was palpable. It was so obvious I told him repeatedly to go to a hospital but; he would have none of it. He hated doctors and hospitals. He tried to reassure me he was all right. Six hours after we spoke he died.

My other friend Dan was a close friend when I was in my twenties. He lived in Dallas at the time. I lost track of him after that for close to thirty years. We by chance got back in touch with each other when I turned sixty. I found out that Dan had gotten throat cancer and his life was completely destroyed by it. He did voice over work and after the cancer treatment he couldn’t work and his wife left him. He had been living in Austin but after the cancer diagnosis and treatment had moved back to Dallas. He was now all alone and living on Social Security. I was in Tennessee then but we talked fairly regularly. I found out he was having all sorts of complications as a consequence of his cancer treatment. Dan was also an atheist but he informed me in one of our talks that he had embraced Christianity. This completely surprised me. Around the fourth or fifth of December 2012 was the last time I spoke to him. I was unable to call him for over a month and I thought something was seriously wrong because of all the problems he was having. In January after doing some checking I found out he had died December fifth of organ failure. The day he died was about the last time I had talked to him. What an eerie feeling.

These two encounters had a profound effect on me. Two close friends gone just like that. Because of these experiences it seemed like death many times just sneaks up on you with no warning. One minute you’re OK the next minute you’re dead. You’re here one minute the next minute you’re not.

So what’s the point of life? Are we all just lost in the eternal darkness as many people think or is there some purpose to life? Many people, because of the despair they encounter when they trip over death’s door conclude that it’s all pointless, others don’t. Your choice is an individual decision but here’s what I believe. Life is not pointless at all it’s an extremely precious and immeasurable gift. We were all given this gift. What you do with it is your choice.

The other fact about life is that you are a special creation of God and God has a plan for your life. Your only job in life is to understand this fact and then to act on it. We have also been given another great gift, the gift of free will. Free will is a tricky thing because we get to use it in making the choice of how we are going to live our lives on this Earth. Although there is no test involved whatever choices you make here you take with you into eternity.

© Richard Woodling 2013