Miles to go before we sleep
Portland, Maine— On Dec. 31, 2021, I woke up with a hopeful feeling. After the deaths of three good friends in 2021, I was looking forward to a year free from the news of death. This would be my new year's resolution: To forget about death in 2022.
As I thought about it, this wasn't going to be a difficult challenge for me, as I have been evading the thought of death my whole life.
Before the sun had set on New Year's Eve though, the news came in about Betty White, one of the most beloved TV personalities, who was 99 and days away from her 100th birthday.
Then during the first three weeks of January, the news of the passing of three Adelphian Academy alumni came across my smartphone. Every week the national news brought the communication of another icon's death. First Sidney Poitier, then Bob Sager, Louie Anderson and Meat Loaf. And of course, Bob Dole.
With each announcement the exclamation point seemed bolder and bolder, emphasizing my unrealistic goal of forgetting about death.
Then on Jan. 22, I learned that my Michigan friends, Duane and Michele, had lost her mother the day before.
Now as I start to write about death, I realize that the passing of relatives, work associates and friends has been placed in the back recesses of my mind to avoid having to deal with this morose subject.
However, there were a few deaths that I could never move into the back of my mind.
The first death I can remember was that of my great-grandma Lewis. Living with us in Holly, MI, she was hospitalized after a severe fall. I was too young to visit her in the hospital. She didn't survive. I remember the outpouring of grief and sympathy expressed to the family as she had been a beloved storyteller and writer. Her stories were published in Seventh Day Adventist publications such as "Our Little Friend" and "Primary Treasure.” I remember being petrified going into the funeral home;I couldn't work up the courage to go close to the casket.
The next unforgettable death in my life was that of my father, who died of a brain tumor in 1982. There was a difficult funeral in Tennessee where my parents lived, and then his body was transported to Berrien Springs, MI, where he grew up. The interment would be at Rose Hill cemetery where my parents had a plot. The viewing and service were at Allred Funeral Home in Berrien Springs which was a long-standing, family-owned funeral home. The Allred family had been close friends of our family for many years and their exceptional expertise and caring for others in carrying out this most difficult function over the years has been legendary in southwest Michigan.
Lamar Allred and my father had been best friends, and Lamar's daughter, Marla, and I are close friends to this day.
After my father's burial, I continued to put the thought of death out of my mind. I never returned to his gravesite, until the death of my nephew Kenny. His fatal accident was a hard one to take. He was a promising, talented young man. There was a funeral for Kenny at Pioneer Memorial Church in Berrien Springs and his burial was in Tecumseh, MI. The service at Pioneer forced me to think about death again. After the service, I drove out to Rose Hill cemetery and stopped by my father's grave for a brief visit. I couldn't bear to linger there.
My faith really helped me get through the grief and pain of Kenny's death. For several years after that, I visited Berrien Springs many times. However, I could not drive to Rose Hill cemetery. This was my way to avoid thinking about death.
My mother came to live with me after I moved to Maine in 2002. She worked hard at keeping her mind sharp, reading, writing a journal and working crossword puzzles. She loved being around people and always had a positive attitude. We rarely discussed death but one time when discussing the possibility, she told me, "Ted, we have miles to go before we sleep."
Eventually, disease and old age took their toll and she passed away. Her body was prepared here in Maine, and flown from Portland to Grand Rapids, MI via Chicago.
Jim Allred personally made the trip to Grand Rapids to ensure my mother was transported back to Berrien Springs in time to meet the schedule of visitation and service at Pioneer Memorial Church, where my mother had been a member.
When it was time for the graveside service at Rose Hill cemetery, the grief that had been building up inside me was unleashed in a flood of tears. The emotion of losing my mother, along with the memories of losing my father and Kenny, overwhelmed my normal sense of comportment.
Death is inevitable. What is not inevitable is properly honoring those who have fallen before us.
Finally, in 2022, I realize that the most important thing about death is the reflection and thoughts of thankfulness one should have for those who have made a deep impact on our lives.
So on my next trip to Berrien Springs I am going to Rose Hill cemetery and pay a visit to my parent’s grave, as well as those of all the other friends and relatives I know to be sleeping there.
And I will never stop believing in my mother's philosophy, "We have miles to go before we sleep.”
Theodore Lewis is the former CEO of Guam Memorial Hospital and has a health care consulting business based out of Portland, Maine. He is collecting stories about lessons learned in life and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.