A pair of 10 cent hillbilly teeth. That was my concept of death up until November 29.That, and the fact that you weren’t allowed to take the flowers that people left at the funeral.
I was only four when my last great grandmother died, and the concept of a funeral meant skipping pre-school and going to see grandma and grandpa. I played with my second cousins who I’d met for the first time earlier that morning. We played hide-and-go-seek around the tombstones and competed to see who could find the prettiest flower arrangements.
* * *
“Feds will be dead in the morning.”
That was all my mom could say before she went to sit in her car and cry.
I grabbed my dog Bandit and headed for my Jetta, pulling up to Franklin Park. I couldn’t cry. I just sat there, trying to process what I had known would happen sooner or later. I was sorry that my dad had to work all night, angry that he wouldn’t call in for a replacement. I was angry that the Feders had to lose a father and a husband on Thanksgiving, forever marking a holiday of togetherness as one of loss.
I didn’t know why I couldn’t cry, so I decided to try and put my energy somewhere productive. I decided to bake cupcakes for the family.
I went to the Hen House on 83rd and Mission, hoping that I wouldn’t see anyone I knew there. It must have been cruel fate that “As Time Goes By” by Louis Armstrong was wafting over the aisles as I hurried to grab the red velvet cake mix and frosting. I got up to the cash register, thinking that I had finally gotten myself under control.
As the elderly man rang up my cooking supplies, he looked at me and sternly joked, “Did your mom die or something?”
I just stared, disbelieving the cruel irony. Looking him dead in the eye, I replied, “No, my dad’s friend.”
I could hear the man spluttering out an apology, although I couldn’t see his reaction with my eyes blurred by tears. I grabbed the bag and speed-walked out the front door before finally bursting into sobs.
* * *
During leadership class, Dr. Krawitz asked us to write down a person who inspires us as a leader. The first person I wrote down was my dad. The second was Mike Feder.
Dr. Feder has been one of my dad’s closest friends since college. They both had the same first name, although you wouldn’t know it since they only ever called each other Feds and Riles. They both grew up in St. Louis, both attended Catholic high schools. They went to medical school at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, both meeting their wives there. They were partners in a medical practice for 20 years.
That was where they both worked until April 2010. One of the partners called my dad, one morning, saying that Dr. Feder was having an MRI after experiencing a strange tingling in his face and arm. My dad immediately drove to the hospital to sit with Dr. Feder’s wife until Dr. Feder was discharged home. It wasn’t long before the test results came back. He had a glioblastoma multiforme, a malignant and usually incurable brain tumor.
At about that time, my dad was already stressed because he was preparing to leave his partners after twenty years to work for another hospital. Dr. Feder retired around the same time that my dad quit. They had to decide who quit first, because he would get a smaller severance package than the other. Dad and Dr. Feder had a friendly argument, each insisting he would take the smaller package.
Dr. Feder retired, but he was far from helpless. The time he didn’t spend with his family was spent working on his charity, “Gotta Have Hope,” helping to fund a school in Uganda and provide medical care for the people there. He spent six months soliciting donations to fill a donated cargo container with medical equipment. Between treatments last summer, he travelled to Uganda with his family to deliver the supplies and provide medical care. His other love was soccer, and he helped coach his daughters’ team to a state championship.
My mom keeps reminding me that he was lucky.
He was lucky that he didn’t have symptoms, and was able to live relatively normally until his death. He was lucky that he had as much time as he did, since his particular tumor was known to be quick and deadly. He was lucky that he was able to spend one last Thanksgiving with his family. He was lucky that he was able to mow his lawn just days before his death. He was lucky especially because he appreciated how blessed he was and he made the most of every day.
* * *
“They’ll probably be comforting you,” was the running joke that night. The Feder family is one of the most selfless I’ve ever met, and their strength and support of the multitudes who came to pay their respects was both awe-inspiring and humbling. To be able to face death with such confidence and acceptance reveals a faith I can only hope to achieve in my own life.
I was talking with my soccer coach the next weekend, who coached one of Feds’ daughters. We shared our amazement at the turnout of support for the family at the service. He couldn’t believe that Dr. Feder’s son, Jon, came up and asked how his family was doing, when he had buried his own father just the hour before.
* * *
I worried about my dad. My mom said that my dad would be OK, because he and Dr. Feder had met for lunch a few weeks earlier and they “said goodbye like guys do.” She said they were both doctors, and they knew how things would probably turn out. We said goodbye as a family on the following Thursday. I looked for the prettiest flowers again, not to keep, but to give in remembrance to the family. As I laid them down outside the church doors, I reflected on a letter that the Feders forwarded to me from their dear friend, Fr. Mitchel Zimmerman, which talked about the philosophy of “living vertically”:
“Suffering accepted is infinitely more valuable and precious to our Lord than suffering chosen, and when the cross we don’t want comes our way it has to be a sign that God is doing more with our lives – his way of showing us that the vertical measurements (height of faith and depth of love) are more important than the horizontal measurements of space and time. Our dear Lord did more in the moment of the cross, when he surrendered, than he did in the rest of his life. In short, loving is more important than living, because if you aren’t loving, you aren’t living, you’re only existing.”
We are not made for life on this earth but for life in heaven. We need to spend our short time on Earth as Dr. Feder did, acting for God by helping others, keeping our eye on the things that are really important, knowing our real home is ultimately in Heaven.
So I’ve accepted it. Everybody has to die. But I’m going to live the days I have left for other people, being the best I can be and taking advantage of every moment. I’m going to learn from Dr. Feder, and live vertically.