It comes to all of us eventually. We all get the opportunity to mark the line of departure as it rubs uncomfortably close to us. And once that Rubicon is crossed, there is no going back.
I’m not speaking of any particular personal loss, although such a loss can serve as an earmark of the change. And I certainly don’t mean to imply our own personal extinction marks the road sign of the change. Once that happens, well . . . once that happens, such concerns about mortality get reduced to triviality.
What I’m referring to is that indelible moment when death, gently or not, knocks on the door of our lives and introduces himself as a tangible force with definable features, permanently ensconced in our sensibilities, never to depart, only to grow closer.
“Please allow me to introduce myself. I’m a man of wealth and taste.”
Something like that. Just a wakeup call to let us know he’s moving in as something of an unwelcome, albeit permanent houseguest.
If we live long enough, it will undoubtedly come to us. The moment arrives – however fleeting, but with undeniable clarity – when we realize we’re not going to live forever. We mourn the lost years. We lament the wasted time. We wonder how we could have been so facile, so arrogant, and so short-sighted as to believe we had blank check, filled with infinite second chances that would go on forever.
When we read the obituaries, it is more with a personal stake than passing interest. We half expect to find names and faces we know personally. And more often than we would like, we find them.
It often comes during the decade of the incipient health problem – our 50s. Suddenly, our ailments get more severe, more complicated, more involved than maladies that can be fixed with a fifteen minute visit to our friendly, neighborhood internist and a prescription for antibiotics. Then it happens. We lose someone, either someone very close, or casually distant. But the point is made: If it can happen to them, it can happen to us.
“To everything there is a season, a time to every purpose under heaven.” – Ecclesiastes 3:1
It’s been that kind of year in my small circle of acquaintances. I’ve been to eight funerals this year. And the year is barely half over.
Most of them, I must admit, have been card-carrying members of the greatest generation, completing long lives, well-lived. And while such events are sad, they are not particularly tragic. For those of us who attended the services to bid farewell – particularly people at mid-life – such gatherings had all the trappings of losing a parent.
We remembered them when we were children. They were larger than life – our authority figures, teachers, mentors and protectors. By all indications, the WWII generation is meeting its end with the same grace, dignity and courage with which they defended the country over half a century ago. And while their departure leaves a void, it is part of the natural order of things. For all the tears, there is joy as well, and the celebration of lives of singular meaning, significance and purpose. “Well done, good and faithful servant . . . Enter into the joy of your Lord.”, the Bible tells us. Sad? Yes. Tragic? No.
Then there were the tragedies.
The first was a close personal friend I had known for ten years. He was a poster child for healthy living. He didn’t smoke or drink. He was a walking advertisement for a healthy diet. He was thin as a rail. And every weekend during our endless, year-round California summer, he could be found cycling his way from his home in Lake Forest to Del Mar along Pacific Coast Highway.
He had it all. A loving wife of twenty-two years, two daughters who adored him, aged 11 and 8. He died of complications from Merkel Cell carcinoma in February after fighting it for a year and a half. Now his wife will get to spend the second half of her life without him. And his daughters will get to navigate the minefield of their teen years without their father.
Then there was the 16-year-old high school girl at our church who was killed in a truck rollover in March. Law enforcement did not indicate the presence of alcohol in this accident. By all accounts, the driver just drifted off the shoulder of the road coming home from some late-night function, and drove the truck down an embankment. It rolled over several times. He was belted in. She was not. He survived. She was killed.
And then a few weeks ago, another teen in our church was killed in a head-on collision coming home southbound on U.S. 395. There were eleven people in a van coming home from a church retreat in Northern California. They were hit head-on by a pickup truck. Five people were killed, including this 15-year-old boy.
This one was perhaps the hardest one to take, because the family is so well-known and beloved in the community. The boy’s father is in the Wednesday night Bible study I attend. He is a district superior court judge, a strong Christian, and has the values and sensibilities that every member of the legal profession should have, but often does not.
These families did everything right. They are active members of the community, made the right decisions at the right time, have been richly blessed with strong, loving families, and live lives of significance, meaning and prosperity. And in an instant, their beloved children were gone. Just that quick.
It’s very tempting to lionize those who die young and tragically.
“They were so kind, so good, so full of life. Everybody loved them. What will become of us now that they’re gone?”
It’s such a canned response, it gets to be a cliché. And yet, we always seem to hear it. Regardless of the failings of the young person in question, they are unquestionably elevated to the status of sainthood in death, often by rote. It’s axiomatic.
Only in the case of these two young people, it was true. These two children bore the indelible stamp of good values, marked by solid upbringing. They were, and would have been, points of light in an ever-darkening world had they grown into adulthood. And now they’re gone. In an instant. The funerals may be over and done with, but the void remains.
It’s interesting the effect such losses have had on those left behind. People at church are more somber, less certain, more courteous (go figure!) and definitely more introspective. There’s a collective vulnerability that has covered the congregation like a gentle shroud. Because, if it can happen to families who do everything right, then . . . dare I say it? . . . It can happen to us.
How we deal with death speaks to our character. It reveals what we carry around inside us. It exposes what we value. The survivors of those loved ones so recently lost are now coping according to what they value.
The children of the WWII generation are mourning the loss of their parents and grandparents. The spouses and parents of young people who died tragically are coping – with difficulty I would assume – with losses so catastrophic as to defy description. But they are coping. Most are strong Christians, and that helps. But who can say what goes on when the last well-wisher departs, the doors are closed, the locks are turned and the lights are out?
There is, however, one common denominator I have observed in all recent survivors – the children of the greatest generation, and the parents of the young who died before their time. And that is the shock and horror of dealing with the inherent unfairness and cruelty of losing family members so beloved in such an arbitrary way.
The baby boom generation is currently in the full flower of its leadership phase of the country in the early 21st century. The nation is in the middle of the administration of its second baby boomer president. Boomers hold positions of leadership in every element of American society – government, business, industry, education, science, medicine, you name it.
There are a lot of things the boom generation does well. Coping with the unfairness of life is not one of them. Dealing with death is another.
During these past few months, I have been reminded of Budd Primrose. I think of him often. It doesn’t take a funeral to bring him to mind. But in recent circumstances, I have had occasion to reflect on the remarkable strength of character of one of the finest men I have ever known.
Budd Primrose was a U.S. paratrooper – B Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. He is pictured here with his wife Mary at the Eagle’s Nest in Berchtesgarten. He fought in the crusade in Europe from 1944-45, and I met him while we were on tour together during the 60th anniversary of the Normandy invasion in 2004.
Budd Primrose is typical of his generation. He is strong, stoic, but possessed of sense of fun and whimsy. He is man defined by his commitments. In 1944, it was to the war effort. Since that time, it has been to his wife and family.
One would have to appreciate the intensity of those days three short years ago to fully comprehend the deep bond that was formed between the combatants of WWII and their sons and daughters who were along for the ride. There was a timeless quality to an experience defined by walking the battlefields where Americans fought with such skill, courage and commitment, mixed with the poignancy of sharing the last long look back of a generation of men who knew their time was short. It was a surreal experience. An experience so sweet, it was painful, so meaningful, it hurt. But it was a good kind of hurt.
People gravitated to Budd and Mary Primrose. He was a page out of history. She was sweet, cordial and engaging. Mary Primrose was a British war bride. Personally, I will always remember walking the streets of Portsmouth, England (Mary’s home town) listening to her descriptions of what it was like to go to school during the Blitz; how streets that were clear one morning were bombed out the next; and how students attended classes to candlelight in bomb shelters. As much as was possible in those extraordinary circumstances, and during that short time span, we all came to love them. Not the least of which was yours truly.
I don’t know about anyone else, but elderly couples who are demonstrably affectionate with each other can either be sublime or strange. I can’t explain why that is, I just know that it is.
Budd and Mary’s love for each other was sublime. It was readily apparent for all to see. I even went so far as to tell Budd that if I could have chosen a father in my pre-incarnate days – if such things were possible – he would have been my choice. He was embarrassed by that declaration, and we never spoke of it again. But the point was made. I believed it had to be.
I often told him that as much as I admired the 2½ years of service to his country, I much more admired him for his 59 years as a husband and father. He just evoked that level of respect. Always did and always will.
Our final night together as a group was Budd and Mary’s 59th wedding anniversary. It seemed fitting. During our time together, all of us had bonded in a unique and indescribable way. In our own fashion, we had become a band of brothers. If nothing else, we all came to appreciate how the veterans of that war are, in many ways bonded closer to each other than they have ever been to their own families.
Well, all good things must come to an end, and for every summit-of-Everest experience, there is the inevitable descent to base camp. And so it was with us. Some, like me, were going on. But most were going home. I spent another week in Europe – traveling to Krakow Poland to visit the Auschwitz death camp – then on to Israel for another week. I made it home after a month on the road.
Many of us stayed in contact with each other. But, as so often happens, many of us drifted apart. Until the day in December 2004 when Budd Primrose sent out a group email to those of us who exchanged such addresses that his beloved Mary – wife, lover, friend and companion – died in her sleep.
Personally, I was devastated. I felt like I’d lost my own mother, again. I called, and we talked. Budd exhibited the characteristics of his generation under great duress and in the face of great loss – stoic, dignified, burdened, but coping.
In the following months, I called periodically to inquire about his well-being. Oftentimes, couples who are so deeply bonded die within months of each other. But, as the winter wore into spring, I found Budd to be getting on with things nicely. He was planning to go skiing at Lake Tahoe before the spring snow pack disappeared. He had a hunting trip planned with his sons, when the season opened. He was planning to shoot the rapids on the Rogue River that summer (in his mid-80s, imagine!).
In short, he was dealing with death, coping with the loss, and living life. And he was doing it with the strength of character that, by God’s grace was given to the greatest generation. There is much to conclude from the dignity with which Budd bore the burden of his loss. But perhaps the most significant fact to be gleaned is that he had a genuine awareness of the inherent unfairness and arbitrary cruelty of life. He knew that very well.
And that was true of his generation. If the Depression wasn’t sufficient in the hard-knocks education of life, WWII certainly was. The young people of that time became fully aware that whatever joy they might experience in life was capricious and could be swept away at a moment’s notice. It may explain why the prosperity of the years that followed the war was never enough to alleviate a general sense of disconnect that many veterans endured coming home.
Many, if not most households, bore the mark of an aloof, distant husband and father, grimly determined to provide for his family, often sacrificing everything else. Good times were something foreign to them, something in which many of them never rested easily. Unlike their baby boomer children, for whom prosperity and success was taken as a rock-ribbed article of faith, their WWII fathers knew the truth of the basic hardships of life. It paid dividends for them in the wake of catastrophic loss, but it often cost them the closeness of those closest to them.
So what does it say about us when all our options are cut to zero? How does such extreme circumstances affect our relationships with our friends, neighbors, our standing as Americans, our connection to God? How do we carry ourselves when the loss is so final that there is no act we can perform, no check we can write, no bargain we can strike to bring back the loved and lost – all irrevocably, irretrievably, irredeemably gone.
Well, for one thing, it hammers home the point, in no uncertain terms, that our reach definitely exceeds our grasp. And such is one of the unpleasant truths of life. For another, it should give us the acute knowledge that we don’t have a blank check. The clock is ticking and will eventually run out. And it’s time to love our spouses, children, whoever, and make sure they know it, and in general kiss the joy as it flies.
Because there are worse things than being the first one to die. There’s being the last one left, with the grim knowledge that we were shallow enough to make mistakes and old enough to have regrets. And now there is no way to remedy such things.
What does this have to do with the state of the country? Nothing that I haven’t commented on in previous articles.
Past generations of Americans knew who they were. They had a solid grounding in their community. They knew their place in the world as Americans. And above all, they knew that life was unfair, arbitrary and cruel. It gave them a sense of immediacy, urgency, and a conviction to enjoy life as it came, because it could be swept away in an instant.
Future generations lost this sense of purpose, and the understanding of the hardships of life. Their paradigm became faith in the good life, which became a gilt-edged entitlement. And if such things became the priority, everything else, including the sense of identity as citizens of their country, and the obligations that went along with it, was sacrificed on its altar.
What does that leave for the rest of us, in light of the unpleasant truth that what we place our faith in will often be burnt to ashes? Well, for one thing, make the most of the time we’ve got left, however lengthy or brief that span may be. We can make every moment count. We can even be citizens of our country, whatever is left of it, and for however long it lasts. Because. . .
“The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” – Psalms 19:9
And that little bit of truth is not negotiable.