The windshield wipers were doing their job, swiping in parallel rhythm, when the ‘low tire pressure’ warning light came on. Drivers side, front. I had just crossed the rain-swollen Kaw on K-18, en route to a funeral, my sixth in nine months. South by southwest, bound for suburban Wichita, to bury a former colleague.
Thomas was struck by lightning while running an ultra 50K.
I was cutting it close. The services were to start at 1 p.m. and I didn’t leave town until nearly 11 a.m. Manhattan to Wichita takes me right at two hours, give or take. Unfortunately, I’d not given or taken enough for contingencies, so when the warning light appeared, I visualized changing a flat tire, somewhere in Marion County, along shoulderless U.S. 77.
In the rain. In a suit and tie. Another glance at my watch, and I turned around.
If I’m true to myself, I was relieved. One interpretation is the warning light was God’s way of telling me maybe I’ve reached my nine-month funeral quota, thank you very much.
This summer, I eulogized a longtime friend, who died at 54 of brain cancer. As colleagues at WIBW in the early ‘90s, I recalled the time when Ken interviewed Fred Phelps, the fire-breathing ostensible minister of Topeka’s Westboro Baptist church, who was just beginning to go public with his hate-filled, homophobic vitriol.
Ken sat there amidst the bombast, politely waited for Phelps to finish his diatribe, looked the man in the eye and asked, “So, it’s safe to say you don’t adhere to that part of the Bible where Christ practiced tolerance?”
Another verbal blast from Phelps, and Ken was already thinking about how he would write the story.
Of the half-dozen in nine months, only my mother-in-law’s death was “normal” and by that, I mean expected. Jean passed at 91 in the socially acceptable course: Hospital, nursing home, hospice, heaven. Mark, my wife’s brother-in-law, and Dan, my daughter-in-law’s father, each 63, died in accidents on the Kansas farms where they grew up. Cancer claimed Ken and another colleague, Jill, and now, Thomas.
Killed by a bolt of lightning. What a way to go. Thomas was my son’s age. He left a wife and three small children. His death is tragic and sad beyond measure.
Owing to this half-dozen, it’s safe to say I have contemplated death more in the last nine months than any previous point in my life. I don’t fear death and my life’s experience has given me a comfortable handle on the grand ecumenical meaning of human existence, but six in nine months?
One minute they’re with us, alive and vibrant. The next minute they’re struck by lightning.
Personal remembrances of the half dozen. A year before she died, Jean foresaw some family-related challenges and asked me to help. Jill, a friend and colleague, mentee of my wife, who became a mentor herself. I find myself thinking a lot about Mark and Dan, who did not know each other, but as it turned out, had much in common, including the manner and circumstances of their untimely deaths.
Eerie, because my wife and I are the connecting tissue to each.
It was clear to my friend, Ken, that Fred Phelps needed some spiritual healing and Ken’s faith informed his objective journalism. I’ll remember cups of coffee with Thomas. I gave him career advice. He helped me navigate a millennial-heavy workplace culture.
I am humbled and grateful to have known them.
It’s pretty easy for me to believe that a 91-year old widow in hospice is supposed to die peacefully in her sleep, and that a 33-year-old man with a wife and three small kids is not supposed to be struck by lightning.
While, on the surface, that seems perfectly socially acceptable, it’s a rationalization. It’s also not the way it works.
When Jill died last spring, I wrote that death and void bring emotional political cover to do what we should be doing anyway, to wit: Thinking of others.
Is a half-dozen deaths in nine months too much? I haven’t seen any warning lights, gleaned any lessons or interpretations of that one.
Which experience has taught me is the operative term.
Matson’s column appears every other Sunday in The Mercury. Follow his blog at mikematson.com