Dying with Dignity - A Friends Final Words
Editors Note: This is an article written by Kumen (Kim) Jones. He was a colleague of mine and on December 23rd, 2015 just 19 days ago, I was speaking with him in the office about this particular piece he wrote for a 50th High School Reunion. I asked him for a copy and he promptly sent it to me. I am sharing this on my blog with his permission, given just a few weeks ago. Yesterday I attended his funeral. There is hope, faith and wisdom in his writing. I thought you might appreciate this!
Reflections on Our 50th (And Other Matters)
By Kim Jones
While there may be some who were disappointed with the way our 50 year reunion turned out, I am certainly not one of them. For me it was nothing short of a smashing success and I wish to express my sincere thanks (as I think we all should) to those who worked so hard to make the event what it was.
It was such a thrill for me to renew old friendships and actually establish new ones. The meet and greet on Thursday, September 17 was a low-key, relaxed, and joyous occasion. I was struck by just how friendly everyone was. There was what I took to be genuine interest in what everyone had been doing in their lives. Time and again you would hear an explosion of excitement and laughter as one person would recognize someone they had not seen for many years, sometimes even 50 years. As I sit writing about it now I thrill once again at how much fun it was.
As good as the Thursday meet and greet was, Friday evening was, in many ways, even better. The open mic section turned out to be very entertaining and both the girls ensemble and my little singing group were exceptional. But, once again, it was the mingling with classmates not seen for many years that made the event the great success that it was. Wow! What an evening it was. Thanks again to the planning committee for all the work you did.
The whole concept of high school reunions and why they are so enjoyable is a mystery to me. They bring together people who in most instances only knew one another for three years and then see one another rarely, if at all, between reunions. We are 68 years old. The three years we attended high school represent only about 4.5 percent of our lives. And yet, we look forward with great anticipation to the chance to mingle with our classmates once again. Perhaps these reunions give us an opportunity to revisit a simpler time in our lives. Whatever the reason, for many of us, reunions (particularly the 50th) are wonderful occasions that allow us to revisit our youth.
Of all the activities in the two days of our reunion, without a doubt the most poignant for me was the video presentation showing those of our classmates who are no longer with us. There were so many. Personally, I found it most appropriate that our deceased schoolmates were not shown as they were at the time they died, but as they looked in high school, in the flower of their youth. For me, they will never age. They are frozen in their youth, young and alive. That is certainly how I would like to remember them.
As we watched the show, I looked at those around me and reflected on the changes the last 50 years have brought to us. Some of us have changed a great deal and some of us hardly at all. But whatever else, I was struck by the thought that all of us have fewer days in front of us in mortality than we do behind us.
One of the reasons the video presentation had such a sobering impact on me was that earlier in the day I had met with my doctor who had informed me that my leukemia had returned and this time it was almost certainly going to take my life.
I was originally diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia in December of 2013. It was really a surreal experience for me. For reasons that I cannot really explain, I never really grasped the seriousness of my situation. It was almost like I had a bad cold. It never occurred to me that I wouldn't get better. And I did. It was a fairly lengthy process, but in May of 2014 my leukemia was pronounced to be in remission. I was told, of course, that there was a possibility, even a probability that my cancer would someday return. Someday.
Well now, that someday has arrived, and I was informed of it on the afternoon of September 17, 2015, about two hours before the start of the meet and greet portion of our 50 year reunion. I resolved in my own mind that I would not think about it or talk about it at the reunion. Then, one of the first things we did at the meet and greet was watch the video presentation I mentioned above. Anyway, for what seem to me to be fairly obvious reasons, the subjects of death and dying have been much on my mind of late. Within a very short time (certainly less than a year), I suspect you will learn that Kim Jones has joined the ranks of our classmates who have died. But, before I go, I want to share some of my thoughts with you on the subject of the process I am going through. "What", you may ask, "has Kim Jones' death got to do with me"? Well, I'll tell you.
As many of you know, I spent much of my professional career as a faculty member at Arizona State University. From time to time (actually quite often) students would come to my office to complain about something they didn't like about my performance as their teacher. When they did, I would simply turn and point to a plaque hanging on the wall behind me.
Life is tough!
Three out of three people die!
Shut up and deal!
At which point they would leave, realizing I was not going to do whatever it was they wanted me to do.
The part of my little plaque I wish to focus on is the middle line: Three out of three people die. It's a simple enough concept in the abstract. Each of us knows that death will eventually come to us. There are no exceptions. You and I are going to die. Most of us do not know when it will happen, so we just sort of ignore it. In my case, I have now been forced to confront it. And while I would not describe what I feel about it is fear, I freely admit to being somewhat apprehensive about dying.
I don't know whether it is still there, but when I was a little boy there was a giant slide smack in the middle of the big swimming pool at Lagoon. I don't know how big that slide was, but to a little boy it seemed to be at least 100 feet high. I remember when I was about six years old I decided I was going to go down that giant slide. For kids from my neighborhood, sliding down that slide was a rite of passage to manhood. But make no mistake about it, I was petrified at the prospect of climbing that 100 foot ladder and sliding down that slide.
After what seemed to be an eternity, and enduring an enormous amount of ridicule from my older brothers and other older kids from my neighborhood, I finally mustered the courage to begin climbing that ladder. All the way up I kept telling myself that I was not afraid and that going down the giant slide was not going to be any harder than going down the slides that were in Liberty Park.
After what seemed to be hours of climbing, I arrived at the little platform at the top of the ladder. So, there I was, on the platform 100 feet in the air and I was scared to death. I sat down on the platform and inched my way forward until I could look down the slide. When I was close enough to look down the slide, I nearly passed out. Now the slide looked like it was 1,000 feet long and it was nearly a vertical drop. Without hesitation, I said to myself, "I can't do this. I want to go back." So, I turned around, and there were at least 10,000 kids on the ladder. There was simply no way I could go back.
I sat down on the little platform and began to cry. All the kids on the ladder began to shout at me to get moving. I was paralyzed with fear. However, I eventually started to inch myself forward to the edge of the platform. Incidentally, this was when I learned it is possible to walk on your butt cheeks.
Anyway, when I got to the edge, I just sat there, looking 1,000 feet down the slide. I honestly don't know whether I made the final move by myself or whether the kid behind me pushed me, but somehow I went down the slide, and I must say, IT WAS SPECTACULAR!!! I don't think I have ever experienced anything as exhilarating as sliding down that slide. When I got to the bottom, I turned and looked back up at the top. I asked myself, "What was I afraid of?"
Well, I am sitting on that little platform again, except the slide I'm about to go down is death. And I don't mind telling you that in some ways I am that little boy again, sitting on the platform saying, "I can't do this. I want to go back." There is, of course, no going back. And remember this: Three out of three people die. Even if I were somehow able to dodge this bullet, there would of necessity be another bullet waiting down the road.
Regarding what happens at the conclusion of our mortal life, there are I think, three beliefs. First there are those of us who are certain there is a life after death. We may not agree as to what happens there, but we do believe fervently that life after death exists. Then there is a second group of us who just don't know. Maybe something comes after death and maybe there is no life after death. We just don't know. Then there is the final group, made up of those of us who are absolutely sure there is nothing after we die. These people are certain that at the moment of death, everything about us ceases to exist.
The point I would make to you who are reading this little treatise is that you can and should face the prospect of your own death with dignity and grace irrespective of which of these three groups you belong to. I guess what I am saying is that we should embrace our own mortality and live our lives to the fullest.
And so, I've come to end of my life. I wish I could adequately express to you all how much your friendship has meant to me. Not just because you have been such good friends, but because my association with you (even if it was just during those three short years of high school) has helped shaped who and what I have become. I will miss you all more than you can know. And when you hear the news that Kim Jones has died, please remember that while I was at least a little apprehensive, I faced the moment of my death without any real fear.
Vaya Con Dios, my friends.