Once upon a time, there was a man named Tommy.
He had a wife, three sons, two cats and a little house in the mountains. Tommy was a kind man and treated his family, friends and neighbors generously.
He worked hard and diligently as a pastor at a large, prosperous church where he was universally liked and respected. He was a sincere Christian. He loved Scripture and its vibrant relevance for our world.
Tommy was a genuinely good person and was rewarded with a good life.
When Tommy turned 52, he and his wife celebrated 30 years of marriage with a trip to Hawaii. That spring, Tommy’s oldest son got married. His middle son graduated from college. His youngest son graduated from high school and was going to college in the fall.
After all of that, Tommy went on a spiritual pilgrimage by walking the Camino de Santiago for two weeks.
Then suddenly, on a lovely Saturday afternoon that same year, Tommy died from a massive heart attack. The End.
Unlike many fairy tales, which start with the bad times and work toward the happily ever after, Tommy’s story sailed through tranquil seas until it ended. Not bad, not good. Just done.
Humans don’t accept stories with no ending. I don’t mean cliffhangers; we adore cliffhangers. Our imaginations run wild with the possibilities and potential yet to come. But a story that ends in a rock wall . . . or a closed door . . . or a cold morgue? No. This we cannot abide.
So we get out our hammers and chisels and start making a way for the story to continue. We extend stories by finding a lesson in them. If it teaches us something, it can live on, growing and changing in our hearts and minds.
Some stories are created for the purpose of teaching. Many, however, are told as entertainment, yet they hold sustaining wisdom as well. The Iliad, the Bible, Mother Goose rhymes, fairy tales. Your grandparents’ anecdotes.
As you suspect, Tommy’s story is true. Tommy Bratton was my pastor and Sunday school teacher. From everything I knew of him and heard from others over the years, the man was as close to a saint as one can be on this side of heaven.
Tommy’s story is frustrating and beyond comprehension. Where is the lesson, what’s the takeaway? Be a good person and die in the prime of your life with no chance to say goodbye?
Soon after Tommy’s death, I told my sister, a palliative-care nurse practitioner, “His death just came out of nowhere. It is such a surprise!”
She responded, “Is it, though? Death is always there. We just don’t think about it.”
For the most part, we live with death by denying it. Until something like Tommy’s death comes along.
Some folks immediately attend to their bucket list (things you want to do before you “kick the bucket”) with renewed vigor. I’m guessing hang gliding and international travel will see an uptick in Tommy’s community in the next year.
Others embrace the maxim, “Live every day like you’re dying.” If I knew I’d die tomorrow, I would profoundly appreciate the good things in my life today and love my friends and family better. Why not have that same attitude each day? Just in case.
Tommy’s death also teaches us the lesson of Ecclesiastes, a part of Scripture Tommy would have taught many times: The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. Bad things happen to really good people, and it will never make sense. We have to live with that.
Humans were created in the image of an eternal God. We can’t comprehend that someone’s life story would end.
Most people assume belief in life after death is only for the religious. But all humans have eternity woven into their deepest self. Perhaps they don’t use terms like “heaven” or “eternal” or even “spirit,” but the most convinced atheist still acknowledges the ongoing influence of the dead. They feel the presence of a deceased loved one or get guidance from their memory. One person told me her father (who recently died) will always be present because of his influence in her life, which then influences those she interacts with, and on and on.
God is love, and God is forever. Despite the pain, shock and bewilderment, the moment Tommy died he began his second life. His body is gone. His spirit is alive in heaven and on Earth.
Once upon a time there was a man named Tommy. He lived and loved on this Earth for 52 years. He died, yet lives. It’s a story without an end.