Chapter 4 – An Untimely Death

Shippan Duck Pin Bowling Center

Shippan Duck Pin Bowling Center – Lane 18

Thursday Night League

Duck pins fly and crash loudly into one another as Dad bowls a strike.

He smiles at his teammates as he walks back to the bench behind the scorekeeper. It’s been a really good day: his first full day back at work since his heart attack six months earlier. He came home from work, had dinner with the family, and now was rolling some high scores. After lots of hard work, he was finally healthy again. All was back to normal. He’d sleep well tonight. He deserved it.

As he’s about to sit, a stranger behind the bench catches his eye.

GR: Hey man! Nice strike! Wow! Look at you! You look a whole lot better than I expected.

Dad: Do I know you?

GR: Awww, really? You don’t recognize me?

Dad: Afraid not.

GR:  Think hard. Who do you know that wears a hooded black robe and carries garden tool?

Dad: Look, I’m kinda busy here. Is there something I can do for you?

GR: Yeah. Sure. Tell me what time it is.

Dad: Looks at his watch and then looks up at GR quizzically.

My time?… My time?… What’s that supposed to mean?

GR: Whadda-ya think it means, man? Your time in this world is done. I’m here to take you away.

A bony hand grasps Dad’s shoulder as Dad takes out his little bottle of nitro pills and puts a couple under his tongue.

 Never mind those things. They can’t help you now man. Nothing can. It’s justyourtime.

C’mon with me.

8:28 pm, January 14, 1965.

The Living Room

56 Palmer Street


The telephone rings. My mother, who’s been watching television in the living room with my sister and me, gets up and steps into our small dining room to answer the phone. My sister, Marge, 17 years old and a senior in high school, and I, 13 and in 8th grade, continue to watch the show.

As our mother picks up the telephone receiver, none of us has the slightest inkling how drastically our lives are about to change.

A Member of the Greatest Generation

Consistent with my good fortune in childhood, I was extremely and lucky and still am proud to be the son of James Fredrick Ash.  A veteran of World War II, he fought in the Battle of the Bulge in the 11th Armored “Thunderbolt” Division in Patton’s 3rd Army in Belgium.

Dad almost never talked about his experiences during the war. I know he saw combat and assume there must have been some difficult memories carried home when the war ended. Part of the “greatest generation” and co-contributor of two entries in the Baby Boom, he was reticent about his Army days but was proud that the Army had “made him a man.” So much so that he’d told my mother he wanted the Army to make me a man when I came of age too.

Dad suffered his first heart attack in June 1964, before medical science understood the connection between cholesterol and heart disease. He spent several weeks in the hospital under an oxygen tent. Absent any effective treatments for heart disease at the time, the standard protocol was painkillers, lots of bed rest, avoidance of physical or emotional stress, the blandest of diets, moderate exercise, and gradual recuperation. Only about 20% of heart attack victims in the 1960s survived the ambulance ride to the Emergency Room. Thankfully, Dad had been among the 20% – the first time.

After a slow but steady recovery lasting several weeks, he was released from the hospital. A couple of weeks later, Dad’s niece and goddaughter, was married in the church we attended. Though no longer hospitalized, Dad was still confined to his bed at home so he missed the event. Between the ceremony and the reception, my cousin and her new husband were driven in their wedding limousine to our house to surprise my Dad. Too young to have been invited to the reception, I was home and as surprised to see them as he was. I remember how touched he was to have been brought into the wedding day. He was a happy, humorous, intelligent, thankful, loving and well-loved man.

My Dad took his doctor’s orders seriously and followed them to the letter. He walked a couple of miles a day, every day, along the sidewalk separating the beach from the parking lot at one of the municipal parks in our city. He wore a pedometer to be sure he fulfilled his obligation to his recovery. He changed his diet and lost weight. He took his medicines (such as they were at the time) strictly as prescribed.  When cleared by his doctor, he returned to work for half-days at first and gradually lengthened his working hours as his strength returned. In short, he did everything in his power to recover and prevent another heart attack.

After six months of recovery, my father’s doctor finally cleared him to return to full workdays starting Thursday, January 14, 1965 – the day after Dad’s 44th birthday. This marked the culmination of his recovery and with it, our whole family’s return to life as it had been before his heart attack.

All was very well.

Building a Career

Immediately upon graduation from high school in 1939, Dad went to work on the loading dock of Pitney-Bowes, the maker of postage meters and related equipment for sorting mail and expediting the deliveries of the US Post Office.  Two years later he was promoted to the Tool Room where the machinery was assembled.

Times and priorities were different back then.

PB management respected the contributions of their employees, paid them well, promoted from within, and recognized and upheld workers’ rights in their shops. The company made safety a priority, was generous with vacation and sick time, and annually hosted an all day summer picnic for all employees and their families at an amusement park. When my Dad was drafted into WWII he, and every other PB employee who joined the military in wartime, was guaranteed that his job would be waiting for him when he returned to civilian life.

And it was.

PB’s health insurance paid the medical bills from Dad’s heart attack and the company kept him on the books at full pay while he was away. And, like it was when he returned from war, his job was waiting for him when he was able to go back to work after his heart attack.

Because PB valued the loyalty of its workers, every employee who reached 25 years of service earned a paid three-month vacation. My Dad surpassed that criterion while on his coronary sick leave, so he and my mother were planning a cross-country trip for us in the upcoming summer months. 

Dad was well again and I was finally going to Disneyland!

Dad had a great sense of humor and was devoted to my mother, my sister, and me. Like others of his generation, my father wanted his children to have a life better than he had. He had no notions of going to college after high school; the idea wasn’t even considered, as he and his family and friends, like so many others, couldn’t afford tuition.  He went to work and he went to war instead.

He and my mother married shortly after he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army and, like so many other returning veterans and their wives, they wanted to start of family.

It might not have been audible, but the Baby Boom was powerful.

Though he never went to college, my father was an intelligent man. He was very mechanically inclined and had both a talent for model making and a natural deductive problem-solving logic that saw him quickly emerge from the loading dock to the tool & die machine shop at PB. Intent on promoting from within, a few years thereafter PB sent him to night courses at Cooper Union in New York City.

Not long thereafter he was promoted from The Tool & Die Manufacturing Group to The Tool & Die Design Group, working side by side with engineers from colleges like Rensselaer, Brooklyn Polytechnic and the Pratt Institute. Ten or so years older than his colleagues, my father was determined to save the tuition money needed for my sister and me to go to college so we might have the head start he’d not had.

Of course, I was to go to college only after the Army had made me a man.

After more than 20 years at PB, my father became Deputy Manager of the Tool & Die Design Group. With years of experience at PB from the ground up, he was in the managing ranks of the company. The Chairman of the Board of Pitney Bowes, Walter Wheeler, knew, liked and respected my father.

Like so many of his peers, Dad was a good, hard working, fun loving, church going, patriotic and responsible man. To me he was just great.


I really suffered death for the first time when my father died. 

I was 13 years old.  Dad’s wake and his funeral were the first I ever attended. Both were terrible experiences. Laid out for all to see in an open casket, though his face looked like wax and his lips were unnaturally red, he was there. He wasn’t really gone yet; I could see him big as life, but dead. His was the very first dead body I ever saw. I wanted it to be anybody else. 

Knowing that when the lid on that casket closed I’d never see him again, I tried with all my not-too-formidable might to will him back to life before it was too late. I prayed as never before that his eyes would open, the mourners would cheer, and he’d sit up in the coffin, smile his great smile and be as good as new. He simply could not really be gone, could he?

When I finally accepted that he was, I was trapped in a nightmare.

Dad was among the first of his friends, co-veterans and peers to die, so flowers and visitors to his casket were plentiful. The jungle of floral aromas and the riot of colors failed to matter to me.  My eyes and full attention were sharply focused on the most important man in my life. I knew full well that after his funeral the coffin would be opened again for a final private viewing when I would see him for the very last time. I brought the keychain attached to a 1964 silver Kennedy half-dollar I’d given Dad for his birthday the day before he died.  During the wake I asked the mortician to put it in Dad’s suit pocket before he closed the coffin. He promised he would.  I hope he did.

As they arrived from the cold January night for his wake, people greeted one another with nods, polite smiles, and whispered conversation in the foyer of the funeral home. I was aimlessly walking nearby when some muted casual laughter came from their conversations.

The laughs struck me hard. How could anything be laughable here while my father lay dead in the next room?  I was insulted by what I considered as disrespect for my great and wonderful father.

I wanted to stand up for my father by calling these people out but, ultimately, I was afraid to confront them. They were of my father’s generation. So I fabricated a noble excuse that I should protect the solemnity of my father’s last days on the surface of the earth. I rationalized that it would be unseemly to make a confrontational spectacle of myself. But if any of the revelers were to look me in the eyes, my indignation would be unmistakable.

None of them did.

In the back of my mind I knew I was jealous of these folks. They could still laugh and I could not. I knew when they left the building they would all go home to resume their lives as usual. At that moment I had no idea of what my life was to become. The only thing I knew was that nothing could ever be as it was.

A jigger of grief and a dash of fear made a potent cocktail for that 13-year old boy. Simply put, I was as incoherent as a drunken man.

Looking back, I wish I hadn’t gone to the open-casket wake. For many years thereafter when I’d call my father to mind, the involuntary first memory I’d have was the image of him in the casket. I had to pass through that sad gateway before I could visit all the good memories of his playing catch with me, fixing my bike, bowling, or driving me to a nearby de-commissioned railroad station to watch for long freight trains, count the cars, and wave to the caboose guys as they sped by.  It was just him and me, spending time together, and it was grand.

Over the years, the casket image thankfully faded in my mind, but I think I would have been better off if the casket had been closed or I skipped the wake.

Sobering Realizations

My father’s premature death changed me fundamentally. Up to then, I was secure in my world, had a strong middle class support system that kept me fed, warm and sheltered. I was growing like a well watered plant, protected from and untouched by the darker side of the larger world.

In a blink of an eye, Dad’s death obliterated my tidy existence and left me really stunned and vulnerable for the first time. When I re-surfaced from the rituals of departure, it was to an uncomfortably unfamiliar world. We were in the same house, on the same street, with the same neighbors and friends and relatives. We ate the same food cooked on the same stove, served on the same dishes that were washed in the same sink in the same kitchen. But now we were just three. The “head of our household” was gone and we were tearful, downtrodden and scared. I’d never before experienced such panic and confused pain.

What happened to us simply wasn’t fair.  Little did I know that, while I was correct in the observation, I never really had any inherent right to fairness.  The universe was not in the least concerned about me. And I heard just the faintest of whispers in my mind, ‘neither was God.’

Disturbingly, I awoke to the knowledge that any future fairness or happiness I may have would always be vulnerable to tragedy from out of the blue. I’d learned the hard way that no matter how well things may be going, days of happiness could spin 180° into grief in an instant.  No one is safe and no time or circumstance is off limits. I was wary.

I couldn’t trust my world any more, so I feared it.

At thirteen years old, I had no doubt that more people I loved would die in my lifetime. Anticipated or not, the ache of loss would revisit me a few or many times. This shadowy foreknowledge has been affirmed, and it will remain with me until I die. 

If only…

The circumstances of sudden death (from an accident, random violence, wartime, stroke, heart attack etc.,) often inspire useless, after the fact “if onlys”:

If only Beth had left for work just five minutes earlier or later…

If only the peace talks had ended the war sooner…

If only that fool hadn’t run the red light….

If only I could have convinced him to ride with a helmet…

If only Mary had taken the doctor’s advice seriously…

If only my father’s nitro pills had worked…

These “if onlys” expose wrinkles in our lives that come from our random and disinterested environment. It naturally neither favors nor disfavors anyone. Good folks and evil do not necessarily get what they deserve. Not in this life.

As time progresses it is increasingly clear to me that life and death are not designed to be fair.  Justice is a human concept that is not elsewhere present in nature. It is an ideal we seek and treasure, but is not an automatic force of nature. When one busts that bubble, a lot of what didn’t make sense comes into sharper focus

Face it. Luck, good or bad, can visit anyone, good or bad, at any time, good or bad.

I am writing this on Friday, February 5, 2016. During a severe snowstorm early this morning, a huge construction crane in the Tribecca section of Lower Manhattan was being moved to protect it and the area nearby. Unfortunately, before making it to safety the crane was blown over by the high winds. The massive tower came crashing to the ground.

Two people were seriously injured and one man was killed.

The dead man never knew what hit him.

God didn’t do it, nor did God stop it.

It was in no way this man’s “time.” A random, improbable, series of events coincided to topple the crane onto the unfortunate victim who, through no fault of his own, was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Likewise, the injured were innocent victims of misfortune/bad luck.  It could as well have been me…or you. No one is immune from the outcomes of random occurrences.

Due to things unfortunate, we can’t always rely on having more time.

Chapter 5 – Dealing with Death & Time

The certainty of Death is hugely upsetting. It typically combines fear and sadness as it challenges our understanding of the purposes of life. Living gives us access to hope for the future, but Death makes that future finite. When a life ends we grieve the void that remains, and it reminds us that an unknown time will come when the void will overtake us.

It appears to me we share the burden of the knowledge of death with some other animals.  Survival of the fittest establishes a food chain that requires premature deaths in other species.  If an antelope isn’t somehow aware of death, why does it run for its life in abject terror from the lioness in pursuit? 

I don’t know where the certainty of my mortality resides among the synapses in my brain, but I try my best to isolate it as far as I can from the rest of my knowledge. I work hard to limit my awareness of my mortality. Were it to become an obsession it would darken all my days.

But at times I can’t escape battling the will of the specter.

Each of my adult encounters with the Grim Reaper was followed by involuntary soul-searching. I examined my mortality to try to better understand why I am here and what, if anything, may happen to “me” when I am gone. 

It was not until late in my trauma management therapy after 9/11 that I began to more clearly define what matters to me and how I want to navigate the rest of my days. During take stock of life exercises, I realized I needed to be more confident and let that confidence inform how I should manage the rest of my life. I broadened the scope of my concern for other people and raised the respect I automatically give to anyone until and unless he or she proves unworthy of it.  My self-serving goals made room for more random acts of caring, and my wife continued to teach me about unexpected generosity.  And I realized I needed to forgive my self too.

While I’m not a fan of the “life taken for granted” phrase, I don’t deny that a refreshed perspective on life can be among the takeaways of “survivors.”  Certainly one does not need to face death to realize the value of eating dessert first, but few bona-fide survivors fail to get the message.

What surprises me about my death-proximity experiences is they’ve made me appreciably less discomforted by the certainty of dying.  Perhaps, after pondering so much about it, I’m getting fatalistically calmer about the certainty that I will die one day. Like anybody, I cannot know for sure what will become of me when I die.  My concern now is to avoid the deep hole that I might dig while obsessing over the inevitable. 

I fear death because it is beyond my knowing. All that I really know comes from life. Ultimately I ask myself, what’s the worst that can happen at death? If every last vestige of me simply evaporates at death, what is there to fear? My absence here won’t matter to me when I’m gone.  I will either be in another place or simply cease to exist in any place or manner.

My world, the only place and time I know at the moment, could vanish with me.

This brings me to ask, “Am “I” my life? Is my life the sum total of all that I am and have been, or am I something more?”  Do I have a future, or will death be my total apocalyptic end?  If I am more than my life only, I am more than what I now know I am.  In this context the only purpose of life is to grow into something better than I am, so as to be more valuable in my potential future.

I don’t know what to expect when the Grim Reaper grabs me on the shoulder but until then I have a life to complete.  I don’t want to stop growing in preparation that “I” may be more than I know.  If whatever this life is has no purpose-filled future: so what.  I can’t change that. I might as well play the hand I’ve been dealt. If “I” will continue to exist in some fashion, I may as well prepare myself to “keep on keeping on” in a meaningful way.

Suffering Death

Most people first encounter death in the third-person long before worrying about it in the first-person.

What does it mean to mourn the death of someone you loved or liked? For whom do we grieve?  Do we feel sorry for the dead person’s loss because he or she liked being alive?  Or do we feel sorry for ourselves because we feel the absence of someone we loved? 

Answers to these last two questions are not mutually exclusive.  Both can be true.

At times obituaries use trot out the phrase: “the departed suffered death on…” Perhaps the obit writers are drawing on a phrase in Christianity’s Nicene Creed that says that Jesus “suffered death and was buried.”  Certainly crucifixion was a suffering, but is the transition from life to death necessarily a suffering?  While a painfully slow death surely must be, suffering might not be present when someone dies while sleeping.  Hopefully, a sudden death, as in an accident, might involve at most only a brief moment of awareness fear, if any. 

How can we know whether or how someone suffers death pain?  I’ve not heard of anyone revived from death who reported a painful transition into the beyond or back.

Certainly the loving survivors of a dear departed soul suffer the death. The living grieve; the dead  – silently ambivalent.


Although I’m not anxious to meet Him or Her face to face yet, I do believe God is.  A universe and its souls don’t just spontaneously occur. Beyond that prime mover premise, however, the nature of my belief was sorely challenged during my efforts to piece together some kind of understanding of 9/11.

That complex and costly day produced thousands of contrasting stories of the lost and the lucky. There was no earthly calculus of any kind that differentiated those who survived from those who didn’t.  Accepting this realization became a large part of my recovery from the spiritual, emotional, and physical wounds I suffered from that day.  It took a long time and skilled help before I assembled a credible idea of how God may operate in our lives or leaves us to our own designs.

I never lost my faith in a loving and beneficent God, but my beliefs about the degree to which He/She operates in our lives were challenged.

One’s “Time to Die”

God may have created and set the universe in motion, but I do not believe that any death, whether by accident, disease, old age, or human mayhem, happens because God makes a conscious decision to “take” someone at a specified time, in a specified way, at a specified place. God has no destiny strategy for each of us to fulfill. The time and manner of one’s death can only be labeled as his/her “destiny” in the past tense.

I think God made all life on our planet subject to death for several good reasons. But it need not follow that God, having made us mortal, has or wants a plan for when, where and how any one of us will live or die.

God created our chaotic and random environment. With the gift of free will, how we conduct our selves (our souls) with others and our surroundings is certainly among God’s concerns, but God is not responsible for anything we do with our Free Will. 

The date, place, or time of a death is no indication of God’s Will.  God feels the pain of loss suffered by those left behind, but God is not a puppeteer or a pied piper leading us to the pre-scheduled moment and manner of our deaths.

The idea that Saint Peter has an ironclad arrival date for each soul as part of a universal forever game plan drawn up and administered by God is ludicrous.

I’m sorry sir, I know you came a long way here,

but I see no reservation in the Book under your name.

We were aware that you might come here today,

 but we have a full house now and no space for walk-ins.

Perhaps you might join the crowd at the bar downstairs.

The bartender is famous you know.

Most of us know The Holy Platitudes:

  • He’s in a better place,” is said to comfort us as much as the griever.  
  • It simply wasn’t his time,” means it’s a miracle the guy’s still alive. 
  • It was just his time,” means face it, he was supposed to die when he did. 

Believing that everybody has an already booked but unknown “time” puts all the blame for every death squarely on God. It’s simply not fair.  Equally unfair is the notion that God has the macabre sense of humor necessary to coordinate all the conditions needed to lead Homer to the exact spot when and where the next lightning bolt will obliterate the poor sod.

Our souls grow or diminish according to how we deal with our environment, including our fellow human and other living beings.  I believe that in life we have an opportunity to grow or damage the only vestige of our selves – our souls – that remains eternal.

No, the “it was just her time” and the “it just wasn’t his time” rationales simply do not hold water in our chaotic environment.  There is no other way I can reconcile surviving 9/11 while too many good people I knew and respected did not.

Either their deaths were random, or God has some serious explaining to do. 

I know in my bones that God did not send the hijackers of the planes on a Holy Mission.  God did not plan anyone’s death on 9/11.

Free will and God’s will are not necessarily the same.