Wednesday, June 16, 2010

My Friend Ron

In the neighborhood I grew up in there were quite a few kids my age, and we all played together, but I was close to just a few. One of those was a kid named Ronnie Bateman. I was a few years older than him, but we were both born while our families lived on that street and I suppose they must have gotten together as friends for Ron and I to have become so close. I don’t recall a time while I lived on that street that he and I weren’t friends. We were always hanging out together. His family became a surrogate to me when mine began to unravel. When my parents divorced he was there, we didn’t talk about it, but I knew I could express emotions over the situation without any reprimand. He was a good friend in a storm.
Later, when my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, I went to stay at his house when she went in for surgery. His mom made my lunch for school, and got me where I needed to go. Again, when my mother was dying from the cancer the surgeons were unable to get, Ron’s home was mine. There was a connection between us that was cemented in my pain, and one that I have never forgotten.
After my mother died I left the neighborhood I had grown up in to go live with my brother Bill. It was a parting that I had no means of comprehending. It was September 1973, and I was 12 years old. All of my stuff was packed, and I was getting ready to leave the house that I had lived in all my life. My brother Dave was going to live there for a while with his wife Heike. I had come up with every reason I could think of to stay there, but there were no other viable options. Living with my father was not a consideration due to his alcoholism, and Dave and Heike were just starting out in their marriage. Taking responsibility for a now troubled 12-year-old would have been too much to bear. So I had to leave the neighborhood. There were no other choices.
I had to leave home.
As I prepared to leave for the last time my friends all came around to say good-bye. I did ok with most of them, although some of that was because I was still simply stunned with all of the sudden changes that were taking place around me. My family had changed, my home had changed, my school had changed, and while there were so many friends and relatives offering their love and support I still felt profoundly and completely isolated. Not even the people or things that I had grown up with seemed the same anymore. Then Ron came over, and I went over to his house for the last time. His mom cried and hugged me and said good-bye as well as his sister Kathy and his dad. We sat around for a while and looked through all of the boxes full of parts from every electric toy we two had owned. We had been gathering all the materials to make a functional robot. No one ever thought to tell us we needed more than electric motors to do it. Finally, it was time for me to leave. We didn’t quite know what to say anymore. Good-bye was too simple for the kind of friendship we had. We were young, but we had gone through a great deal together. In the end we just said good-bye and hugged. That was something I generally didn’t do with other guys at that age, but there was no other way to communicate anything further. I left the neighborhood with promises from my friends to write to them and they to me. I don’t think any of us ever did, kids at that age are generally not the best at that kind of thing.

Quite a few years passed before I heard any more news from the neighborhood. Ron and his family came to my wedding, and Ron caught the garter belt. We didn’t get a chance to talk much then so there was no opportunity for any catching up. I had no contact with anyone there except for my brother Dave and he would occasionally pass on some news that he had heard. He and Heike had moved out of the house when it was sold, so he did not have as much direct contact as before. My wife Sue was pregnant with our second daughter Kaytie when Dave called me with the news that Ron Bateman had just gotten out of the hospital after having surgery for a brain tumor. I was pretty shocked. Ron was only about 23 years old. This wasn’t supposed to happen this young. Dave said that he had heard that he was doing ok, but he hadn’t talked to them directly. I still remembered Ron’s phone number, it was as indelibly etched in my memory as my own from those days. Mr. Bateman answered the phone. I told him who I was and he said,
“Well hello Danny! It’s good to hear from you. How are you doing?”
I told him I was fine and gave him a brief rundown on my life up to that point. I then told him I had heard about Ron’s situation and had called to see how he was doing. He had just come home from the hospital the day before I called.
“Hello?” he said.
“Hey Ron, this is Dan Bode.” I replied.
“Wow! How ya’ doin’ buddy? It’s been a long time!” He sounded tired.
“I’m doing pretty well, how about you?” I asked.
“I’m doing OK. I get tired real easy though. The doctor says that will get better with time. How did you hear about me?”
I told him about Dave and how he had told me about it all. We talked about all we had been doing over the many years we had missed in each other’s lives. He had become a Christian about the same time I had. Both of us had grown up in the church, but we never had an understanding about what it meant to have a personal relationship with Christ. After searching around for a few years we both wound up back at the Cross. It was good to know we had that level of spiritual fellowship to connect. We talked about getting together sometime and going sailing. He had joined a sailing club and would go out on the bay. He enjoyed the peace. We made no definite dates since we had no idea how his recovery would progress. I called him every few months after that to maintain contact, and he seemed to improve in his strength and general health for a while, but then things seemed to go down hill again. He told me that another tumor had developed. This time the doctors could do nothing for him. He was going to die.
His family settled in and waited with him. He was engaged at the time to a lovely young woman who chose to stay with him and become a part of his family.
I don’t remember how long it took for the tumor to develop to the point that it totally incapacitated him, but when he went into the hospital for the last time his mom called me and I came back to see him. I remember walking in to the hospital and finding the hall where his room was. His mom was just coming out when she saw me. She immediately put her arms out to hug me, and as I put my arms around her I remember saying “I love you.” It was the first thing out of my mouth. I didn’t think about it prior to that, it was simply the right thing to say. She had been my mother too for a while. She held me tighter and sobbed quietly for just a moment. She let me go and said “I love you too Danny”.
“How is he?” I asked.
I could tell the room was crowded, and there was a lot of noise going on in there.
“He’s actually doing pretty well. Several of our friends from church came to visit, and do you know he said he wanted to lead them in some hymns? Can you believe it?”
I had to believe it, because I heard a bunch of people singing hymns in his room. When I walked in they were just finishing the last one, and people were starting to file out of the room. They all smiled at me as they left with tears in their eyes. I walked closer to the bed and his sister Kathy, who had been sitting next to him, came over and hugged me.
“Ron guess who’s here? It’s Danny.”
“I was hoping you would make it out.” He said.
He didn’t look too much different from when I had seen him at my wedding a few years before. I don’t recall him looking emaciated or anything like that. He was, however, completely incapacitated. The tumor had grown to the point that it was actually shoving his brain to the side. All he could do was lay there with his head turned to the side. He could see and he could speak, but that was all. He would occasionally ask someone to turn his head for him. Because the pain was now so intense the doctor had put him on a continual morphine feed. There was nothing they could do now except ease his pain. We talked for a little while, but not too long. He fell asleep and I just sat by his bed for an hour or two praying for him and his family. When he was awake he was either singing, praising God, or telling a joke. He was the most positive person there.
Occasionally the morphine would intervene as he drifted in and out of a drug-induced fog, but something struck me very profoundly as I watched this happen to him. Most people are quite incoherent in this state, rambling on with jumbled thoughts or just basic nonsense, but not Ron. When the morphine took over and Ron lost conscious control of his senses, the only words that came out of his mouth were praises to God. He was totally oblivious to my presence, but not to his Creator. I almost felt as if I was intruding on a private conversation, so powerful was the presence of God in that moment. It struck me then that Ron had truly given himself completely over to God.
We all talk about doing that don’t we? We all talk about giving ourselves completely over to Christ, and living for Him. That is the goal of our existence. That is the one point in our life that every Christian strives for, to surrender completely to God and let Him do His work in and through us. Ron had reached that point. He was so completely immersed in the Holy Spirit that when he had no control over himself, God did. I asked myself then, if I were in the same condition as Ron what words would be coming out of my mouth? Would the pursuit of God be so ingrained in me that I would still praise Him if I had no control of my actions?
It has been 13 years since I asked myself these questions, and I have yet to answer them.
Ron was sent home to die in his own bed, in the same room we had always gone to play in when we were kids. One night in the middle of the night as his father was checking on him, he awoke briefly and asked his dad to cover him up. His dad covered him and checked the morphine flow on his way back to bed. He died peacefully a few hours later as he slept.
His mom called me the next day to tell me he was gone, and when the memorial service would be. I was there to see all of his friends and family say their good-byes and add my own.
It struck me as I sat and listened to everyone speak with such love about this man that I had known all my life, that I had watched a man die. I have indeed heard the words “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” more than I wanted to in my lifetime, but never had I been there to actually observe a death of someone I knew well. I had been there shortly after my mother died, but I was not there to see the process. Here I had actually talked to Ron about where he was going. We had talked about seeing each other again, and then he faded out and started praising God while he was not aware himself of what he was doing.
I had seen death before, but I realized then that I would never, in any other circumstance, consider it such an honor to watch a man die.
We are all appointed once to die, but Ron had taken his one life and used it to die well.
©Dan Bode 1998