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‘If I die before I wake’

My friend Fred died.

He didn’t make the news. He wasn’t famous. He didn’t jump off a landmark, cause a horrific car accident or wash up on a beach after a tsunami.

Like the children’s prayer, he simply went to sleep one night and died before he woke. He hoped for it for a long, long time.

I came to know Fred years ago. Newly retired after two careers in California, he planned to live a long and active retirement in Las Vegas.

Then came a series of ailments. At first, the mind-set was one of a guy just getting older. Things go wrong, and you take a few weeks to get them fixed. Fred was between the Bob Hope quip that “middle age is when you still believe you’ll feel better in the morning” and Katharine Hepburn’s admonition that “getting old is not for sissies.”

Fred was certainly no sissy. He grew up in Chicago, poor and black. He joined the Marines, served his country in Okinawa and eventually moved to California, where he worked hard in two jobs to earn a double retirement.

Then those seemingly random ailments turned into a scary progression, starting with a mild instability, turning into complete limb-by-limb immobility. In the last few months of his life, every meal and every breath became a task.

I’ll spare you further gritty details. Fred saw doctors and specialists around the country. A precise diagnosis escaped doctors, except to observe the obvious: Fred’s body was shutting down, one little piece at a time.

I visited Fred in the early stages as a casual acquaintance. That grew into a friendship. And in the end, I visited him as his priest.

We talked early on about the unfairness of it all. That quickly turned to worry about becoming a burden to his wife. And that eventually gave way to the gift of coming to grips with knowing the authentic human condition somehow seemed tied to his systematic loss of control and power. Whoever was in charge, it wasn’t him.

Through it all, Fred maintained a great sense of humor. Last fall, for example, he had the TV on during a Sunday visit. It was turned to professional football, and he confessed to being an Oakland Raiders fan. I teased him by giving him a faux absolution and told him that I root shamelessly for the Arizona Cardinals.

“It’s tough, dying and being a Raiders fan,” I told Fred.

He replied, “But I’ll be dead soon. You won’t.”

Now that’s funny. That’s Fred staying Fred in even the hardest of circumstances.

As Fred began to lose control of his body, he had to make a conscious decision about whether to take matters into his own hands while he still could, if you get my drift.

He chose to carry on with the task of dying.

When his condition progressed to the point that he could only shake his right arm and whisper, he began to have an increasingly difficult time swallowing. That caused an “I am trapped” reaction, which hospice treated with more and more medication.

From then on, communication became difficult. He began to, as the hospice worker said, “actively die.”

At 4:30 on a Saturday morning, I got the call.

When I entered his room just before dawn, I greeted him like he was still there: “You got your wish, pal.”

After administering the ancient Anglican rites for the dead, I recalled our conversations over the years. The art of dying well has an almost magic way of cutting to the chase on so many of life’s seemingly impossible entanglements.

I don’t think he’d mind me telling you that, imperfect though he was (and aren’t we all?), he loved his family, reconciled himself to his regrets and, in the end, found himself eager for the next mystery.

Was his passing newsworthy?

Well, I guess it wasn’t “news” as we generally know it. But it was worthy. The truth is, most of us will exit this life more like Fred than those about whom we read in today’s newspaper.

Hundreds, if not thousands, are on that very same journey this morning in every community across the planet.

If Fred’s story helps anyone along the way, it’s worth the telling.

Sherman Frederick (sfrederick@reviewjournal.com), the former publisher of the Las Vegas Review-Journal and a member of the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame, writes a column for Stephens Media. Read his blog at www.lvrj.com/blogs/sherm.

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