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A Lesson on Dying Young

Updated: Jul 5, 2021

Today is the 23rd anniversary of my dad’s death.

He was 44, the first in our big family to die young. He had always been healthy and fit, but he needed to get a mole on his arm checked. He didn’t, and he died a year later, leaving us all stunned and heartbroken.

After my appointment, I somehow mustered the courage to call my mom and tell her about my grim prognosis, just five years after my dad’s death. God help me break this news to her. She had already endured so much, losing her husband in the prime of life.

My lead fingers stoically punched the numbers. She answered on the first ring, waiting anxiously for the report she knew would be coming. I took a deep breath and stumbled and stammered, trying to put a positive spin on the Tuesday morning death sentence. But Mom wasn’t fooled. She knew the lingo – the euphemisms for no hope and imminent demise – all too well by now.

So, despite my best efforts to convince her, or maybe myself, that everything would be fine—just fine, my tough-minded, fiercely independent mother wailed – right there on the phone, exactly like a woman whose child is dying.

Dad died young, but at least in marriage, the odds of who dies first are indisputable – 50/50. But a child dying before a parent; that’s not natural. It’s not fair.

Dying young shouldn’t run in families, like freckled noses or cleft chins.

But life hands you what it will, and God allows what He will. And there you are, with a broken heart, a broken body, five children and a sobbing mother, just trying to think one rational thought about how even one tiny good thing is going to come out of this big, broken mess.

And then you finally hang up the phone and make spaghetti for dinner and bathe the baby and help with homework, almost like you’re living instead of dying.

You quickly learn that time has a nasty habit of marching relentlessly forward, impervious to a Tuesday morning death sentence or a sobbing mother, and everyday life, with fists raised vying for attention, demands that you participate.

The dirty little secret is that dishes still need to be washed, bills still need to be paid, and mouths still need to be fed.

So, really it comes down to a choice to be made, albeit a decision you shouldn’t have to make so young. This choice is a cruel taskmaster who makes you march forward too and refuses to allow you to stay stuck in the in-between where you aren’t living, but you aren’t dead.

And cruel though it be, this question demands an answer from all of us who are still here, breathing in and out:

Will I live while I’m alive, or will I exist while I’m dying?

My dad faced death with courage and faith. He was totally at peace, trusting that even from this tragedy, God was able to bring beauty from ashes and life from death. Even in the depths of my grief, I knew that I wanted to die like that, radiating love and exuding a calm confidence that this isn’t the end, but only a transition to a beautiful beginning.

So, I knew how I wanted to die. But the burning question was … How do I want to live?

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