Death, one of the bookends of life.

For those that watch the television show “The Amazing Race” you might have heard the airline travel being referred to as the great equalizer. In the show teams race around the world performing various tasks challenging all aspects of knowledge, wit, and fitness. There are points where teams can get a huge time lead when running a particular segment of the course and then when they rip the next envelope they discover they need to catch a flight half way around the world to start another leg. The reason why the airport has been called the great equalizer is it is not uncommon to get there and find out that the only flight to your destination leaves many hours later. For a team that has had a day that is truly in the zone this can mean sitting there with nothing to do but lose the lead they created. They are powerless to keep the edge created and find themselves brought back to a level of equality, if only for a moment, with all of the other teams.

In many ways death can be the great equalizer of life. The human ‘race’ we find ourselves in takes many different forms. It is not so easy to discern who might be ahead or who might be behind, who is above or who is below. No matter how clear your may place yourself in your view of the world, wearing someone else’s shoes can certainly flip your world upside down with ease. With ease, that is, if we allow ourselves to try on those shoes for a period of time no matter how uncomfortable they might feel. (Why be afraid to try something we deem uncomfortable on when we know we can take it off anytime we wish?)

Dr. Robert Kandarjian once said to fulfill our purposes the challenge is to find the lessons we need to learn to evolve our lives to the next level. (At least this is one of the things I have learned from him in my own words!) Yet, learning a lesson that takes us to the next level is almost by definition something that challenges our personal identity. This, in turn, is something most people need to get close to death for in order to allow it to happen. Lucius Annaeus Seneca wrote a famous essay On the Shortness of Life. The following is a brief quote from the translation:

It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested.

Perhaps said in a better way the real challenge is to accept the lessons we need to learn. I believe each individual life will indeed provide all that is needed to be completely fulfilled. Be it described as SynchroDestiny by Deepak Chopra or with the following words from Eckhart Tolle it is not so much that we need to find our paths to fulfillment but rather change our eyes to see the doors that are open to us.

Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness

This morning a friend of ours pasted away after battling a rare form of cancer for over two years. Several days ago he made the choice to stop the nourishment that was keeping him alive – but not living. During this time we visited to say goodbye and it is at moments like this it is a challenge to find anything to say. As time pasted the conversation did manage to move along and when it was time to leave the parting words that came out of my mouth were, “Best wishes.” His return comment was, “I’ll say hello to your father when I see him.” I then gave him a thumbs up and said, “You do that.”

Take advantage of death to learn and grow from as someday it will be your own. What I still hold closest from my father is the simple fact that he is inside of me. 16 years after his death he still comes out in various and unexpected ways. Sometimes I feel a mannerism of my own matching something I remember from him – it gives an odd feeling of being an observer who is neither fully me or him (at least in physical form). More often it is a phrase that has found a home in my own language – certainly never thinking it would when I was hearing them growing up. There is comfort in having him there for it is neither burden or destiny. It is simply a part of me that keeps life a little more connected.

A few months after he passed away on December 20th of 1993 I wrote the following to all of the employees of the two family businesses he was involved with at the time. It may not mean as much to others as it does to me yet the events of the day are what brought it back to the present. So, here it is with a few additional [comments] to bring better context to those who know none of its history.

There are many stories to be told about our founder. They range from business antics of which I know very little, to personal experiences rarely shared with anyone, to family stories which I will never forget. I would like to share some moments of those last few months. The employees of Captive and Lincoln [the abbreviated names of the family businesses] were indeed his second family for which he cared very much. To say that the following account of my father is just for his employees, however, would not be the whole truth. It is something I need to do for myself as well.

It was only this past September when I found out that something was seriously wrong with my father’s health. His routine check-up back in June or July showed no signs of major concern. Don’t drink and watch the sweets, were repeated once again to a very stubborn man who usually thought he knew better than his doctors. The major consensus at the time was, more or less, that he was getting old. To everyones surprise, September started a steady decline that would finally end on December 20th.

Sometime during October, my father came to Captive to talk to the lawyers and the accountants to touch base on any final preparations that might need to be made. I remember he wanted to drive himself in that day, but I finally talked him into letting me pick him up. He was not too bad in the morning, but by the end of the day he became very weak. Before leaving he called Jake Bungert, John Bungert, and David Smith [a few of the officers of the business who where also long term employees] into his office to say good-bye. As he left his office, he gave it a final salute. I was surprised by the fact he was so sure he would not return. As he started down the stairs, he told Madeline Field [another long term employee] he was dying of cancer and he only had six months to live. It was the last conversation he would have at Captive.

The drive home was a difficult journey. He was concerned that my mother would be well taken care of financially. I told him there was nothing to worry about, but I wished he would stick around to spend some money too. At the moment his life was settling down to retire, his chance to enjoy it was being taken away. Knowing the condition he was in, I asked him what was going on in his head. He simply said, “It’s a blank.” I thought we would be able to make a visit to Lincoln or even return to Captive in the coming days, but I guess he knew better than I. Everyday was downhill. By the time he was settled in enough with his thoughts to want visitors, it was nearly too late. Even the doctors were surprised by his rapid decline.

In the afternoon of December 20th, my mother and I had just returned to his room [in the Hunterdon Medical Center] from a short visit to the patient lounge a few doors down the hall. The nurses finished turning him and rubbing his back as they had been doing from time to time. As we entered the room we heard the fluid in his lungs still making his breathing difficult. As horrible as it sounded, he looked just as comfortable as he had for the past couple of days. The poisons in his system from the failed liver and failing kidneys added to the Morphine drip placed him in a peaceful sleep. It was good to see no pain. The pain was, by the grace of God, controllable without any drastic medication. This is not to say the pain was never felt. There were indeed bad times. Times that made my father fear its return. It was a side of my father I never saw before.

Though there had been a steady decline in his condition, this was the first day I saw no signs of communication. Even just yesterday, I recall him pointing at his doctor as he entered the room. Some of his last words were a repeated acceptance of what was about to happen. I will never forget his face as he said, “It’s no big deal,” and “That’s it.”

We settled into his room as we had done many times before. I picked up the book I was reading to distract my mind for the moment. [reading this again I wonder what that book was!] My memory cannot place what my mother was doing.

It was not long before an emotional pain ran through my chest. Was it simply the way he moved, or maybe a sound he made? Maybe it had been something deeper than that. I quickly approached the bed with concern. Whether my mother took the cue from me, or knew something was happening on her own, I do not know. As we looked down, we could see that his face had changed and his breathing was no longer a task. His eyes lay closed and his mouth was silent. There was no doubt that this was the end. In the few minutes that followed we both said good-bye to him one last time. We kissed him and I shook his hand. He took his last breath and he was gone.

As if it had all been planned, which indeed it might have been, the priest entered the room. He had visited a number of times during my father’s illness and this was what he thought would be just another visit. As he entered, I told him we thought my father was gone. The priest read him his last rights one last time and further blessed his passage onward. Moments after the priest left the room, I walked out to the counter and told the nurse that I thought my father had died.
The nurses confirmed the obvious, but the harsh reality seemed but a dream. The formalities of the death started quickly, and that night we picked out his coffin. It seemed so strange to enter the display room – a funeral director I certainly could not be. I have wondered how one chooses a resting place for the physical body, but I was surprised as to how easy the choice was. The mahogany coffin represented his life as I knew it. It was a quality hard wood that takes to the skill of the hand as if it were created for that purpose. His clothes were an easy pick too. The tie with the jolly Santas on it and the Christmas socks were something that he would not be seen without during that time of the year.

I remember a man who strived for perfection. I remember him asking me to straighten out the picture on the wall in his hospital room. I remember a tough and serious business man who would also do anything to joke around. I remember, “It’s only money,” “Bye now, pay later,” “See you later alligator,” “Do me a favor and give me a little smile,” “Jaunûk, Jaunûk, mano sunûs, mano sunûs,” (John, John, my son, my son) “Cathy?” (How he would address my mother). There are many other words and sounds recorded in memory that will haunt me until my final days.

I remember a man changed forever by World War II. According to his sister, he talked about the war when he first came back but shortly afterward not much was spoken. He saw the horrors of war and one wonders how we can truly have peace if we reach a time when those memories have faded. He grew angry when he heard someone claim that the holocaust was fraud – for he had seen the bodies. He saw friends decapitated in vehicles directly in front of him by piano wire strung from tree to tree at window height. He lay unconscious for more than a day out in the field from the shock of a fallen shell, which contributed to the loss of hearing in one ear. Part of his job included going out into the middle of nowhere to make enough noise to draw enemy fire. Of course when the shells started to fall he was to run away as fast as possible so enemy munition was the only thing being wasted that day. In the end, he was lucky enough to return from a war that took the lives of 85% of his fellow soldiers.

As stated before [not in this letter], the Raymonds family has always reinvested in the business, and the magnitude of that statement has only just hit me. In organizing his finances for my mother I realize more than ever that the business was everything. After selling his home, he left this world in the midst of constructing a new house next to the church he donated money to build. He owned a small condominium in Florida and some farm land out in Iowa. He gambled a small amount of money in a river boat entertainment company that has yet to see the waters of its destination in Dubuque. [which actually turned into an investment returning more than 10x in cash] All the rest of his wealth was found in Captive and Lincoln.

There were two wishes my father wanted to see before he died. The first was to build a new home for which to retire in. He saw construction started but home video of the progress was the closest he could get in the weaker days. It was not easy for me going through the construction project after he died. He was so close to having that dream come true. The home still has a long way to go, but in the end I know it will be a house that he would be proud of. [This is the house my mother still lives in as of this posting]

The second wish was something he had always wanted. He wanted to be a grandfather. I am happy to say that he knew before he died that this dream would also be coming true. It was the happiest moment I remember out of those short few months. There was a smile on his face that I will never forget as he called me dad. The baby is due in August. I just wish I could have seen it in his arms. [and now he is a grandfather twice over]

His passing cut him short on both of those dreams, but the one thing I think about the most was not on his list. That thing was Captive. Though it was not on his verbal list of dreams it was indeed a lifetime legacy and recently a source of much frustration. I wanted him to see a strong Captive. One that could stand on its own two feet again and reward the employees that brought it there.

I have a good feeling about this year and a personal commitment to do what needs to be done to start that upward spiral again. I truly believe my vision will help make Captive the success it once was, but, due to my inexperience, I must also hold myself accountable for its prosperity. If my goals cannot become a reality, I will resign my position as Chief Executive Officer and look for a replacement that has the experience to make it happen. You deserve much more than wishful thinking and time being wasted hoping next year will be better. It was not easy parking in my father’s spot for the first time after he died. I will certainly do my best to make him proud that my car is there today. [for those wondering here, it took a lot longer than expected, yet, in the end, the business became much more than the success it once was, and, no, I did not have to fire myself to do it]

Sometimes I say to people after completing a project that, “We did good.” By good I mean virtuous as opposed to well. Most certainly my father did good. We both had very strong ideals that would lock heads more than once. During the early years the business took up most of his time, but fortunately we grew closer in the later years. Good-bye pop. I love you more than I ever knew, and I know that even with your passing my love for you will grow stronger everyday.