Mortality. Difficult to accept it in others. But our own? That’s one aspect of life that’s hard to get our arms around. Indeed, it can take a lifetime to really appreciate…and I mean a long lifetime. They say wisdom comes with age and that the young think they will live forever. Ain’t that the truth? But, it’s another one of those things that you don’t really appreciate without some years under your belt.
The years teach much which the days never knew.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
When I was younger, I knew intellectually that I wouldn’t live forever. Simple fact, right? I was lucky not to have seen a lot of death as a child, but I knew people eventually died…if nothing else, the movies taught me that. But, the reality of death didn’t visit me until years later. Having said that, it came a little earlier than it would have otherwise because I chose to go into police work. In short order, I learned one prevailing truth:
Mors ultima linea rerum est. (Death is everything’s final limit).
People know that cops deal with death routinely. But, most don’t realize the frequency with which it is encountered from behind the badge. It’s not just homicides. In fact, although murder is certainly a factor, there are a whole slew of other causes that must be investigated. Suicides and unexpected deaths by natural causes are most prevalent, unless one is assigned to a specialty where accidents are the focus. I was a Traffic Accident Investigator and Reconstructionist for six years. The duties not only involved responding to scenes of fatalities, but also attending autopsies to determine the instrumentality of the death. It was one of those details that could make the difference between a successful prosecution of a manslaughter or second degree murder case and an acquittal. So cops get well acquainted with the mortality of others. Then there is the flipside to that reality—the proposition of their own deaths.
As a rookie, I experienced the first death of a comrade in the line of duty. Wes Fox was a character that everyone liked. He was the quintessential class clown. The man could pull a joke out of almost every situation and keep you laughing. He was killed in a horrific traffic collision while responding to an alarm call in a rainstorm. He lost control of his marked police unit when he hit a mudslide that had turned the highway into a Slip and Slide. He hit another vehicle coming in the opposite direction. His death was a cruel lesson, made worse because it turned out that the burglary alarm he was responding to was a false activation.
Fox’s death not only drove home the dangers of the job and likelihood that I would lose other friends, but also the personal risks I took everyday. The romantic expectations I had about a life in law enforcement quickly dissolved into the hard realization that I might not make it to retirement…no matter how careful I was or how good I was at my chosen profession. But, it was my choice and I had to accept certain risks if I was going to make a career out of it…or get out and sell real estate. You can’t go through day-to-day operations in a constant state of terror, so I put the dangers in perspective and admittedly adopted a comfortable mental distance from some of those realities. Ultimately, we all do it in order to maintain some reasonable sanity. Even the Lord encourages this:
“Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”-
So for nearly 30 years of police work, I did the same thing all officers did…relied on my training, my competence, a strong mental attitude and the faith I had in my peers to get through each day, each week, each month and each year. And then…
The date was 6-6-06. I’m not big into numerology, but that many 6’s in a row should have told me it was not a good day for a colonoscopy. Go figure. I had been passing some blood and knew it wasn’t normal. I hadn’t even had a hemorrhoid in a profession where such things are common…stress, shift work, questionable diets and intermittent periods of inactivity play havoc on a body. So I persistently hounded my doctor until I was referred to a GI specialist. I came out of the anesthesia to grim faces on the doctor and the nurse. They ushered my wife into the room and informed us I had a cancerous tumor down in my guts. What followed was a year of major surgeries, radiation, chemo and another few years of recovery. I was also forced to deal with the intimate recognition of my own mortality in a way I hadn’t before. It’s one thing to know there’s dog poop in the yard and another have it brought close to your nose. You get the idea. And God said, “Hello.”
“When calamity comes, the wicked are brought down, but even in death the righteous seek refuge in God.” (Proverbs 14:32)
It’s been ten years since my diagnosis and so far there have been no reoccurrences. The doctors say I’m “pretty much out of the woods,” but they still want to see me on a regular basis to make sure. The unspoken message there is, “Hey…so far, so good. But, let’s not get cocky.” So I continue to see my surgeon and oncologist annually and submit to colonoscopies on an accelerated schedule. They rearranged my guts, so there are limitations placed on regular activities…but, hey, it could be worse.
With all that in my background, I understand why I see so many older faces in church. Yes, when you’re young you think you’ll live forever…or, at least for the foreseeable future. When you’re older and you’ve experienced what life has to offer and what it takes away, you understand one absolute reality:
“Life is short and just keeps getting shorter every day.” (Michael P. Kelly…well, I haven’t found anyone else who claims it.)
I tried to impart this lesson to my sons, along with other bits of wisdom. They suggested I was being too dark and needed to lighten up. I appreciated their perspective and understood their concern. Thirty years of police work and doing the tango with cancer is bound to alter ones worldview into one not easily shared by others. And, I suppose, some things we have to learn through our own experience. But, in truth, an objectively realistic view of death as an undeniable fact of life is not necessarily pessimistic and can motivate us to make the most of it.
There’s no doubt that people who have been through life-threatening experiences can be traumatized…and normally are, to one extent or another. I found there were times when I was so concerned with death that I became afraid of life. At that point it dawned on me that I was at an important juncture and a choice had to be made. I could allow anxiety to rule the rest of my life, which was obviously not a healthy proposition, or I could follow other survivors down a better path through simple reasoning.
Again, I got realistic and looked at what was ahead. I supposed that, if I didn’t get hit by a bus or fall victim to some other tragedy, I had maybe 20-25 years left to live. The last twenty years had gone by so fast that I realized that wasn’t as long as it first sounded. I decided I didn’t want to be chastising myself on my deathbed for wasting any part of it worrying about what was going to happen anyway. With that, I decided to make the best of it and enjoy as much as I could. Here, the boys were right…it was time to lighten up. I looked heavenward and prayed, “Good God, help me get on with it!”
There’s one thing that is certainly driven home the older we get. Along with the inevitability of our own eventual demise, we realize the value of faith in something bigger than ourselves, and the hope in something worthwhile after our time on earth is through. If we’re willing to accept Christ’s words, there is great comfort in them.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”-John 14:1-3
Michael P. Kelly is a retired police sergeant from the Huntington Beach Police Department in southern California, with 30+ years of law enforcement experience.He served in a variety of assignments in uniform, administration, and supervision.He developed expertise in training personnel with an emphasis in defensive tactics, officer survival, and critical incident management.He served several years in media and intergovernmental relations.At the time of his retirement, he was assigned to the department’s Professional Standards Unit (otherwise known as Internal Affairs). Two years before retirement, Mike was diagnosed with cancer.Thanks to the Lord's blessings and a team of good doctors, he survived the ordeal after major surgery and a battery of chemo and radiation treatments. Subsequent to retirement, he taught academy classes at the Golden West Community College Criminal Justice Training Center in Huntington Beach, CA, and worked for the California Commission on Police Officer Standards and Training as a course evaluator.Mike has done volunteer ministry work for his local Catholic parish, as a teacher of adult and school-age formation classes, and as a member of the Pastoral Council. He has also conducted public speaking presentations about his spiritual life as a police officer and cancer survivor. He authored a suspense novel entitled For Sake of the Son, which was published in 2013 and is well received by readers who have responded with five star reviews posted by online retailers.He is working on another project for future publication. Mike resides in southern California where he celebrates a successful family life as a husband, father of two successful sons, and grandfather to two rambunctious boys…all of whom he considers his greatest blessings.