Last month I was in Tulsa dealing with a stressful family crisis. On April 16, I experienced the first of a series of minor strokes that culminated in a major stroke that paralyzed the left side of my body. I experienced my third mini-stroke at night while in a Tulsa hospital. I believed I would die and was surprised to realize that I was not afraid.
I was terrified of death when I was a child. My father spent most of the Second World War in a Japanese concentration camp. I was born three years after he was liberated. I know now that my father suffered from severe PTSD. As a four-year-old, I found the only way I could engage him was to ask him about his war experiences.
Unfortunately, my father told me more than I could absorb as a child. He told me about American prisoners who committed suicide because they were weak. He told me about prisoners who were executed. He told me about the day he was being transported in a prison ship that was bombed by American Navy pilots, who did not know that the ship contained American prisoners.
I remember my father telling me about the men who could not swim who were standing on the deck of the sinking ship, begging other prisoners to save them. But the prisoners who could swim were too enfeebled by captivity to help their comrades, and the men who couldn’t swim were drowned.
My father's stories terrified me. He had survived the Japanese concentration camps because he was strong. I was just a child. I knew I wasn’t strong enough to live through the kind of horror he experienced. I would be one of the weak prisoners who would die.
I grew up in a small Oklahoma town. Many of my childhood friends belonged to religious groups that believed anyone who was not a member of their particular denomination was going to burn in hell for eternity.
I was a gullible kid, and my childhood buddies were sincere in their efforts to proselytize me. Nevertheless, I never figured out which denomination was God's chosen Church. Was it the Baptists, the Pentecostals, the Nazarenes, or the Church of Christ? I never figured that out but I was terrified of dying and going to hell. I did not shake off that fear until I was an adult.
Elie Wiesel was put in a Nazi concentration camp as a child during World War II. In his memoir of that experience, he said he was introduced to death at an age when children should know nothing about death except what they read in story books. Weisel was right. Children should be protected from the terrors of life, real or imagined. They will learn soon enough when they are older.
Now I’m 74 years old and recovering from a stroke. Death is near. Maybe I will live five or six more years, or maybe I will die tomorrow.
I believe in God. He is not powerful enough to protect us from famine, plague, or disease. He could not stop Hitler or Stalin. Nevertheless, God has filled the earth with beauty and sprinkled it with people who love their families and their fellow humans and are capable of great sacrifice in the service of others.
When I die, I wish to be cremated and my ashes scattered on the banks of the upper Colorado river in West Texas. I have sinned and suffered a great deal, but God has blessed me with a lovely wife and family. I live ln one of America's most beautiful states. I have known the goodness of God in the land of the living. I am grateful.