Monday, August 15, 2011


Those of you that know me, know that I can be a rather melancholy person.  Because of that, I've always been somewhat obsessed with death.  It's always caused an inner conflict within me and I'll admit, some fear as well.  I've read verses like 1 Corinthians 15:54-58 and meditate on the words "O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR VICTORY? O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR STING?” and thought to myself, "Really?"  I don't know about you, but I've felt the full sting of death many times.  There is an uncertainty with death, and  regardless of the depth of my faith, there are times when I think and wonder at the mystery of my existence.  If you say that you are 100% sure of what will happen to you when you die, you're lying, or you have some spiritual insight that I've not yet grasped.  Because regardless of how strong our faith in God might be, there will always be a hint of doubt.  That's part of what faith is about.    

My friend Mike died just over 13 years ago.  I'm not sure why I'm thinking about him today.  Maybe it's because my mind is wandering from excessive writer's block.  Maybe it's because Summer is coming to an end, kids are going back to school and change is in the air.  Maybe it's just because I'm feeling a bit nostalgic and yes, melancholy this afternoon.  Or maybe it's because I just read a blog posted by a friend of mine about loosing one of his best friends this week and the grief he is now experiencing.  Nah, that can't be it.

Mike died on the Monday after Labor Day in 1997.  He came to my house on Sunday for lunch, bringing with him his beautiful little daughter, Jordan who was only 1 year old at the time; the same age as my oldest son, Ian.  We cooked hot dogs for lunch, drank a few beers, ate Popsicles and filled up a little baby pool for the kids, and our feet.  It was a good day.

Mike was having a rough time with life, as well as his marriage, so we talked a lot.  He shared a lot of his struggles with me.  I listened.  It felt good to listen.  It felt good to talk.  When he left that afternoon, I walked with him out to his car.  After getting Jordan situated in her car seat, he looked me right in the eyes and thanked me for inviting him over.  I could tell that it meant a lot to him.  You could see it in his eyes.  Just before he drove off he rolled the window down and said, "Hey, let's going fishing tomorrow since we have the day off."  I thought about it, hesitated a few seconds and then declined the invitation.  I would have loved to have gone fishing.  We were fishing a lot back then and I was always looking for an excuse to go.  But for some reason, I felt the need to spend more time at home and with my family.  I had no idea how much more was going on by turning down his offer.

The next day was Labor Day.  Mike went fishing anyway, with another friend named Tommy.  I didn't know Tommy very well, but we had all fished together a few times.  I felt a little jealous that I wasn't the one who went.  It should have be me with him.  That morning I felt a twinge of regret, thinking how nice it would have been to be in the water, hooking a few speckled trout.  But the day went on.  We sat around the house and did as little "labor" as we could.  We watched TV and played around on the computer.  All in all, it was a pretty boring day, but it was good to spend time with my wife and son.  It was good to rest.   

Just after we finished lunch, I was sitting at my desk on the computer when the phone rang.  It was Mike's wife, Kim.  She said my name, paused and her voice began crackling.  I could hear her crying and my heart began to race, feeling that sinking feeling deep in my soul.  You know that feeling?  The feeling you get just before something bad happens?  That feeling that you are right on the border of a tragedy?  As soon as you step over the line of acknowledgement, everything in your immediate world is going to change, and you feel it.  You sense it.  Here we go.  Stepping over the line.  

My first thought was that Mike had left Kim.  Not too long before, Mike had run off to Florida to escape marriage problems and the stresses of life that were troubling him.  I imagined that he had again decided to temporarily escape, and Kim was naturally upset, and was calling in hoes that I would help her track him down.  That's what I was thinking.  I wish that had been the case.  Something so simple could have been solved.  Something so simple could have been worked through.  I would have been glad to have driven out to Florida to find him.  I would give anything to have the memory of finding him fishing or sitting in some beach bar drinking a beer.  I would have convinced him to come home.  He always listened to me.  We would laugh about it today.

That's not how things worked out.  After the phone fell to the ground, I remember hearing someone picking it back up.  I heard a voice that I didn't recognize.  "Jake, this is Kim's aunt.  Kim was calling you to tell you that Mike was killed this morning.  I'm so sorry."  I stepped over the line.  Everything changed.  My reality changed.  Everything looked different.  Everything sounded different.  It was as if I stepped into another dimension.  The sting of death.

"What?  What?  What?"  That's all I remember saying.  I looked around the room, back and forth in quick movements of panic.  She hung up the phone.  My wife Kelly was sitting on the bed across the room.  She knew that it was one of those phone calls.  It was one of those lines crossed in life that you can't cross back again.  She was crying.

Through tears she muttered, "What?  What happened, Jake?  Is it Mike?  Is he dead?"  I nodded my head and began weeping uncontrollably.  It was the kind of weeping that comes from deep inside your soul and you have no control over it.  My head fell into my hands and my shoulders began heaving up and down.  This was one of the rare times in my life that I've felt the full force of mourning.  I understand grief and the powerful clutch of it.  The cold embrace of death surrounded me and I felt empty.  I walked outside and on to my driveway, staring up at the sky.  What had just happened?  Why wasn't I there with him?  Why didn't I go?  Could I have saved him?  Would I have died as well?  Why, God?  Why?        

Mike was struck by lightning from a small isolated thunderstorm that popped up late that morning.  I remember seeing it pass just to the West of my house, thinking how strange it was. There was no chance of rain that day.  Mike had left Tommy and the boat at the shore, while he ran across the beach to get his truck.  Tommy didn't even know what had happened until the ambulance showed up.  He was killed instantly.  The thoughts ran though my head once again: It should have been me with him that morning.  Maybe I could have done something.  Maybe I could have stopped him.  Maybe my obsessive compulsive tendencies would have kicked in and I would have insisted on him waiting for the storm to pass.  Why wasn't I there?   

About a year before Mike's death, he became a follower of Christ.  Not many people know that.  I had been a Christian for a few years before him and he had always thought I had fallen off the deep end.  But we were close friends so he eventually began  to ask me questions about what I believed.  He didn't talk about his faith that much with others, but we had many conversations about spirituality and God.  One evening in particular, when Mike was having an especially rough time in his marriage, he called me.  "I don't get it!  I became a Christian just like you encouraged me to do, but my life still sucks!  Why?"

I didn't have an answer for him.  I agreed with him that life did suck from time to time.  I shared with him that I often felt the same way and even questioned my faith occasionally.  I also shared with him the good things God had done in my life.  Mostly I just listened.  I listened to the pain in his voice and tried to feel it with him.  I told him that I understood and he wasn't alone in his struggles.  I never judged him and I never questioned his faith.  I guess that I just tried to be who Christ would have been for him, if He was sitting with him that moment; the same Christ that sat with me when Mike died.  The same Christ that works through me when others grieve a loss and feel the sting of death.  And the same Christ that reminded me of Mike this afternoon, and reminded me that I'll see him again.  The sting of death is gone, life still sucks sometime and I still miss my friend.  See you soon, my friend. 

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