Two weeks ago I watched a man die. He was my grandfather, Jerold Schmidt. He was nearly 80 years old, scarred and bruised, once an avid cross-country runner, now at the losing end of a decade long battle with a flurry of cancers – first non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, followed by prostate, followed by a metastasized version that spread through his aged bones to the rest of his body. He is survived by 5 daughters (among them my mother) and 1 son; two ex-wives (the first of which, my grandmother, spoke at his funeral, and the second of which was by all accounts his best and closest friend when he died); and hosts of grand- and great-grandchildren.
He was an unusual and unusually good man. Of course, he was not without his flaws (multiple divorces says a lot; though, I think, multiple ex-wives at your funeral who bear you absolutely no ill will also says something). The first time my own father met his future father in law, the latter was sunbathing in a speedo, dripping with tanning oil. For most of his adult life, he was worth a not insubstantial sum of money, yet you would never know it to observe how he lived. We’re not talking tailored suits but brown-bagged lunch for old-time sake either. He never drove a car worth more than about $5,000. He never wore an outfit that couldn’t be purchased at a thrift store for $18. And he never, never threw away leftovers from food prepared at home, ordered at the budget-Chinese buffets he frequented, or consumed at various family functions. “Throw it in a box and Jerold will eat it some time in the next week or so.”
He made his money “developing” “real estate” – which means that he bought up a scrappy, problematic little parcel of land that nobody wanted, tweaked it (and the zoning board) just enough to get one person to want it, sold it to that person, and moved on. Or, alternately, never sold it and just let it agglomerate onto the stash of unsold, problem property that accumulated over a lifetime. The standing joke at the funeral, hilariously ironic and by no means untrue, was that Jerold had originally purchased a gravesite with an irrigation easement running through it, necessitating no small amount of extra work in the funeral preparations. Which simply underscores the fact that the people to be pitied in this story are those poor souls charged with trying to liquidate his estate.
“Find a need, and fill it,” he used to tell me – “that’s the governing principle of business and the secret to a successful life.” “That’s the definition of philanthropy, not business, grandpa. More like find, or fabricate, a need, and then exploit it to turn a profit” — my clever response. “Your splitting hairs, son,” followed by a warning that such cynicism will never bring happiness. He never let his rose-colored, idealistic view of business furnish an excuse to live lavishly and pat himself on the back for his high-minded productivity. He never wanted for money. But he always, always used it to help others. He spent the last ten years of his life living in a bedroom in his son’s basement, driving a 20 year old Cadillac, reading Lowell Bennion, Dean Koontz, or the occasional romance novel.
He spent a significant portion of his life after his first divorce relatively inactive in the Church. His own reactivation came as part of a process of helping others. Maybe 10 years ago, my drug-addicted, 350-lb cousin, Levi, hit rock bottom and called Jerold. Over the next couple of years, grandpa practically single-handedly nursed Levi back to physical, psychological, and spiritual health, helping him in the process to prepare for a mission. A year out, Levi was diagnosed with a rare, untreatable form of bone cancer and returned home. Weeks before his own death, this gentle giant reduced to a heap on an oversized wheelchair took grandpa Jerold back to the temple, an exclamation point on grandpa’s own spiritual recovery.
The day before he died, grandpa Jerold lay in a hospital bed, intubated, his broken body writhing in pain. He was awake and fairly lucid (serious sedatives, like serious pain meds, we were told, would cause him to bottom out), and responded to my questions with hand squeezes and nods. “Are you scared,” was the only thing I could think to ask as we stood alone in the room together. His head shook as he shook it, a silent “no” that spoke volumes to a life well lived. That afternoon, his children decided that if he continued to decline, the next morning they would remove the breathing tube (the source of the intense, unremitting pain he suffered), inject him with the good painkillers, and let him die peacefully.
Morning came. Jerold’s family – all his children and their spouses with many of his grandchildren and others – gathered around him. One at a time, each of his daughters came forward and sat in a chair next to his bed. With his swollen hand on the head of his child, and with a tube preventing speech, Jerold proceeded to participate in a father’s blessing, which his son voiced, for each of his children. For some of the blessings, inactive husbands were invited to participate. For one daughter, a husband who is not Mormon was also invited. “We perform these blessings by the power of the priesthood,” Jerold’s son explained, “but also by the power of the love we have for her. Just put your hand on her head here and your other hand on his shoulder.”
“Your father,” is a common term in priesthood blessings – “your father loves you,” “your father is proud of you,” “your father wants you to know…”. But here, as the roles of father and son intertwined, as father spoke through son, the ambiguous referent of the phrase “your father” assumed a peculiarly Mormon sweetness and profundity. When the blessings were finished, all stood around the bed as Jerold’s son offered a family prayer. Those present held each other’s hands or simply placed their hands on the shoulder of a person standing close by. The power of God, mediated by a priesthood of humble dignity, to bind families together in unbreakable bonds, and to lift us closer to Him, in proximity and in stature, was positively electric in that sterile hospital room.
After the prayer, Jerold’s daughter in law, a nurse, extubated him as pain meds were administered. His daughters and son stood around his bed, as the pain from the breathing tube subsided, and watched their father die. When it was finished (it only took a couple of minutes) the contrast of the peaceful expression on his motionless face with the jolting agony he manifested minutes earlier was nearly as stark as that between his then living and now dead body. In a world where I am too often aware of the shortcomings of my faith, this was a needed reminder of the great and glorious capacity of this peculiar religion, Mormonism in all its strange and marvelous splendor. A Mormon send-off for the ages. May we all die the dignified death of Jerold Schmidt.