One of my closest friends is dying. Seven weeks ago, the 85-year-old had completed a family outdoor crusade white water rafting, hiking, and other strenuous outdoor challenges with three sons and all of his grandchildren. At his turn, he topped it off with a dive from a rope swing into the icy waters of Little River at Walland. His entire family was jubilant at his stamina. Since retirement twenty years ago he has participated locally in the East Tennessee Senior Games in his respective age group. Javelin throw, softball throw, running broad jump, pole vault, 5K run, basketball hoop shots — he excelled and is listed first place in most and often.
We became friends in 1950, after his family moved from St. Petersburg, Florida to Pigeon Forge. I was an 8th grader, and he began his freshman year at Sevier County High. From our SCHS school days, scrambling, hiking, camping and sports thru college, marriage, family military service, careers and retirement, we stayed in touch. We were 50s “Forge Boys” and had many mutual childhood friends and memories to reminisce and savor.
A week after his outdoor journey, he entered the hospital in great pain. He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s disease; chemo began a few days later where they also found lymphoma in his stomach. He elected to go home, choose morphine for comfort and not vegetate for a time. A widower of 4 years, he was ready for the end.
His son, a nurse, called and relayed his request for me to visit. I entered his darkened bedroom at his home. He was semi-alert and very thin, no tubes. We exchanged heart-wrenching conversation. During the 30-minute visit, I was able to make him belly laugh a couple of times. I felt better. It was the only gift I felt I could give him. Plus, I knew he was fairly alert.
He said, “a few days ago, some thoughts occurred to me that I felt I must share with my sons and my grandchildren. Some important guiding principles. I wrote them down. I guess they came from sermons, my life experiences, scriptures, — I don’t know. But I have shared them with each family member during the last few weeks.”
He lifted his wobbly right hand in the air as he punctuated his four or five points.
“Number one — Find the truth!; Number two — Do the right thing! I’ve made mistakes in my life, you have too! We all have. Life makes it difficult. But always do the right thing. Three — Love and serve your neighbor-Deny yourself. Help and give to others. Leave your self-centeredness and become God-centered. Rise above self and truly care for people. Four — Be honest and open. Number five — This one is the most important one of all personally, know, love and follow our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.“
I left wandering aimlessly to my truck. I felt like I had been stomach punched; my insides were knotted and my heart ached. My lifelong friend was slipping off to be with God. I hurt because age reduces our circle of close friends. Friends who could savor, share.
Those rare few friends who remembered the way we were and the adventures of our world that was no more. You know it when you proclaim the past and the return is a blank stare and an indifferent disinterested look. The movie, Grumpy Old Men, came to mind. Jack Lemon’s father, Burgess Meredith, 95, sat beside him at rivers edge. Seated on a junked double rear car seat. They peered across the water. The father said, “I’ve lived so long my friends are all dead. Now, there is nobody to remember when. Sometimes, I think the Lord has forgotten about me.” Driving home, some how much of my hope and optimism had left me. I hurt. Then, a bible verse occurred to me, “Be still and know that I am God.” My mood lifted a bit. Another verse bubbled up, “This is the day the Lord has made; I will rejoice and be glad in it!” My mood lifted a bit, but I still hurt.
Why am I writing this? To honor one of my best and longest living friends. I guess people grieve differently. I am a writer. So, I guess I’m mourning his loss by writing. Most importantly, when my 85-year-old friend refines all those years into five key admonitions; the result of that lengthy unfolding of his world, his is powerful advice and needs to be shared. He would want each reader to ponder his words, soul search their own lives and consider his directions...Somebody got it right.“ If you are breathing, God can use you!” My friend was glorifying God with labored breathing, shared directions for living as he waited to silently fade away with his Lord.
Goodbye my friend, you will be remembered for that big heart that you so generously and genuinely shared with each person you met. Rest in peace my brother.
Ron H Rader, a Sevier County native, is Advisor with NAI Koella | RM Moore Commercial real estate, Sevierville. Rader is author of two books: The Blue Mountains Sing of Rivers, Old Men, Trails and Trout — a look back at growing up in the 1950s Great Smoky Mountain countryside, hills and hollers of Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, and Gatlinburg. His second: Daniel Meets the Spirit of the Bear — a children’s book for ages 7 to 90.