All of us must one day yield to death


On the day after Thanksgiving we buried my step father-in-law.

It was a beautiful ceremony at St. Philips Episcopal Church. Rev. C.J. Meaders played a beautiful song on his guitar. The homily was lovely. And so we said goodbye to Jeff.

It was hard watching him die. I had never watched a person die slowly before, sitting by his bedside as he gradually slipped away. In the end, he was skin and bones. He took one last big breath and was gone.

We wondered if he could hear us in the end. They say your hearing is the last thing to go. Dottie, my mother-in-law, told him everything was okay and he could go. His children were all fine. The cat would be taken care of. Everybody was going to be just fine. And so he went, with his daughter Libba by his side holding his cold stiff hand.

If Jeff had had the strength, he would have gone kicking and screaming. He loved life. He was fascinated by people. He was a character, smart, funny, unique. It is far beyond the scope of this column to describe him adequately.

Just a month before, he told me he was going to beat this cancer. But it was not to be. There is one thing all of us must one day yield to: the power of death.

As I watched him lying there on his hospice bed, it seemed as though I was looking at myself, or my wife, or my father or my daughter or son. Many of us will be lying there one day.

Unless you are lucky like my father. He was out running at age 65. He would gun it up the first hill out of the Delta on which our family home was built. “Quit doing that,” we admonished him. “One day you’ll sprint up the hill and fall over dead in the driveway.” Which is exactly what he did.

Two weeks before my father died, we took a long drive through the Carroll County hills. It was one of those clear, crisp, sunny Mississippi winter days.

As we talked about life, I noted that he had lived an extremely lucky life. Nothing bad had ever happened to him. No family deaths. No divorces. No illnesses. No family or business problems.

When he suddenly died two weeks later at a relatively young age, I figured he got his bad luck all at once, but now I’ve changed my mind. Although he missed some good years and never knew my children, he was spared the pain and indignities of old age.

One of the ageless questions is which is the best way to go. If we could all live until our health fails and then die quietly in our sleep, that would be ideal. But we don’t live in an ideal world. I would rather go quickly.

For those left behind, this is a mixed bag. Slowly allows you to say goodbye and adjust to the loss. A sudden death is an emotional shock, but it is concentrated in time.

Life is such a profound mystery. Its path is always hidden with twists and turns that defy logic. Jeff and my father were roommates at Ole Miss and lifelong friends. Imagine Jeff’s reaction if you had told him back then that his college roommate’s son would be by his side at the time of his death 70 years later.

Jeff was farming in Greenwood when my father bought the newspaper in 1973. Jeff was elated. J.O. was moving to Greenwood. For the next 22 years they were best friends. I met my wife Ginny at my parent’s Christmas party. Ginny was there with Dottie and Jeff.

Later in life, Jeff became a painter. Ginny and I both loved his work. Our house is full of Jeff’s magnificent art.

My favorite Jeff Cole masterpiece is titled, “On the way to J.O.’s barn.” It hangs over our living room mantle. There was this one beautiful spot on the way to my father’s barn. I saw its beauty and so did Jeff. That was an unspoken bond we always had together.

There is a four-acre wooded area behind my house. I have become its groundskeeper, slowly turning what was a thicket into something park like. I am an atrocious artist.  I cannot paint at all. But with some help, I tried to recreate Jeff’s painting just 50 yards from where it hangs.

It is autumn now and the leaves are falling. My patch of trees is beautiful in a wistful way. When I gaze on it, I think of J.O. and Jeff and the overwhelming miracle of life and death. How can such awesome people really be gone? What is heaven really like? How could it be better than it is on earth?

By winter, every leaf will be gone and the trees will be completely bare. Then there will be this beautiful spring day when I gaze upon these special trees in this special place and be full of love, appreciation, peace and hope.