Saturday, April 27, 2013


Are we ever truly ready for death?  An unusual question to ponder no doubt, but one many of us have considered from time to time.  When death happens quickly, say in the way of a accident, there is no time to make plans.....touch base with old friends and tie up loose ends.  However, when there is an illness involved......when death is knocking at the doorstep....our opportunity to "square" things is staring right at us.

Last night I received news that a former high school classmate and college roommate of mine passed away  after a couple months battle with cancer. His name is Gary Burman, one most of you don't know.  That's really not the relevance of my words today.  What the fact that Gary did not die a Irrelevant Death.

Peace Be With You Gary.....
When I first heard of Gary's illness in March I struggled with reaching out to him.  It had been some where in the neighborhood of 30 years since we'd talked.  After college graduation, he'd gone his direction and I went mine.  There wasn't a real connection to us anymore, or so I thought.  So for days, I wrestled with the "Should I" or "Should I Not" and looking at the phone numbers for Gary and his wife, Linda.  Finally and slowly I punched the digits of my cellphone.

As the phone began to ring I was filled with all sorts of uncertainties.  What condition would Gary be in?  What would we talk about?  Would I be walking into uncomfortable waters?  What compassion or friendship would I be able to offer?

"Hello?", echoed the strong voice at the end of the line.  "Ahhhh, Linda, this is John Kelling, Gary's old roommate from college", I somehow forced out.  "Hi, John", she shot back.  And that's all it took.  Just a couple of quick words and the rest of the conversation took its own course.  For all the anxiety I put myself through in making the was long gone now.  (let that be a lesson to us all).  The two of us must have talked for five minutes or so as she explained things of what was going on until she passed the phone over to Gary.  What I heard was a weak, soft-spoken Gary....but it was a voice exactly as I remembered.  .    
As we talked, I thought about a whole lot of other remembrances.  Like the fact that our parents were both in the restaurant business in our growing up in small-town Iowa, we were in Cub and Boy Scouts together, he was on the Little League Cubs and I was on the White Sox (two Chicago teams), we both played the saxophone......we got into trouble together (I'll leave that to the imagination) and we both went on to the same college, Mankato State.  We had a whole lot of commonality, the two of us.

Our conversation must have lasted half an hour and in it was some laughter and some tears. But definitely more laughter, especially when Gary related a parasailing experience he had in Florida.  Seems like his fellow employees all got together and sprung a trip on the family to a warmer climate.  Apparently, Gary's son, Joe, wanted to parasail, something Gary had little interest in. However, as the story goes, the driver of the parasail boat had a shirt on with the letters, Y-O-L-O.  And as curious sorts, the family asked what the letters stood for.  "You Only Live Once", the driver responded.  I'm not sure of all the details other than the fact that it was toward the end of the day and the crew offered to let Gary go up with his son.  In many respects, the shirt's "message" couldn't have appeared at more appropriate time.  For both Gary and his son.

That was the last time we talked. And as I hung up the phone, I knew it probably would be.  But that didn't keep me from calling and checking in with Linda.  Over the course of the next few weeks Gary had very little strength, yet....and this is what I find amazing, he'd wake up each day with Hope.  "What's on the calendar for today", he'd ask his wife.

The more I thought about Gary's calendar comment, the more I was intrigued.  How often do we look at each day as a challenge, ready for what's in store?  How important was it for Gary to try and keep his family at a point of "normalcy", when things were clearly close to the end?  Was Gary's desire for another day, another task what kept him alive.....without pain throughout his entire struggle?  Yes, Mr. Burman, that's a relevant statement.

CaringBridge was an especially good tool for Linda (and family and friends) to use during Gary's illness.  There were many days I read her comments and left with a big hurting hole in my heart.  But this morning, as I sat down to share a few words of a life that was not Irrelevant, these words presented themselves.

"As the sun was setting over the lake and began to shine on Gary's face....and into his eyes.....he saw the light and peacefully passed at 1907 (time)......Gary is at Peace with our Lord!"  

'What's on the calendar for today?"......Somehow, Gary, I think you have the answer to that question.



"Thy sun shall no more go down, neither shall thy moon withdraw itself; for the Lord shall be thine everlasting light, and the days of thy mourning shall be ended"-Isaiah 60:20


  1. John, I am writing this with tears streaming down my face. How wonderful is it that you have this gift to share with us! I thank you so much. I am glad I am one of those kindergarten thru high school classmates!! Bless you John Kelling and hugs from an old friend!!

  2. Becky.....we've reached that age, I believe, that our thinking, our want to hold onto life and not possessions becomes clearer and more important. Gary was there, in that moment. These words are a testament to the man, for sure. Thanks much...

  3. John; Saddened by the loss, but love what you share and the way you do it. Best Wishes, John

  4. Jane M Fouts-JohnsonApril 27, 2013 at 3:56 PM

    Wow! Death is such a sure thing, yet I am always shocked to hear of losing a classmate. We really never consider the possibility of being diagnosed with cancer or someone close being diagnosed. In our minds, that isn't supposed to happen to someone we know, yet it has managed to take several of us thus far. I am so sorry to hear about Gary. He always seemed like such a good kid and as I remember, kind of quiet. Haven't seen him since school, but still see his face. I enjoyed reading your post here John. Take care and keep up the good work. Pleae send my love and condolences to Gary's family.

  5. John, I went to my highschool reunion last year and was shocked at how many of us had passed. I ask myself afterwards, if I would have known of there illness before would I have contacted them? All I can tell you is I wished I would have. Great story. Thanks

  6. Thank you Doc, Jane and King!!! Emotional writing to say the least. Makes one wonder what's on the other side.....other than splendor, that is.

  7. John, What a lovely tribute you have given to Gary and his family. I was so very touched by your words. Please pass on my condolences to Gary's family. I don't know if you would remember but we all were in confirmation class together. I was going to send that picture to Gary, but now I send it in my prayers. Thanks for sharing. Jolaine Wosepka Hekela

  8. Jolaine...and what a confirmation class we were!! So much so, Gary and I both later became Lutherans. LOL. Thanks for reading and I appreciate your comments and I will most definitely pass on your condolences.