Column: Friends' passing reminds us of mortality

Nothing shakes your sense of mortality like the death of a good friend. In the last couple of weeks, I have lost two good friends, both of them high school classmates.

Wayne Kussow was my best friend in high school, and stood with me in our wedding. We had never met before our freshman year, but we immediately struck up a friendship that was to last 64 years. We were both farm kids with a lot of responsibilities at home, but we also both possessed a desire to break away from the farm, go to college and find careers in education. Wayne became a highly respected professor at the University of Wisconsin, and I had a very satisfying career as a high school English teacher.

During our high school years, we had many classes together, often studied together and shared an interest in athletics. And while I was not much of an athlete, Wayne was a star in football, basketball and track. He was the center on our basketball team, which won the one and only conference championship in the history of Oconto Falls basketball. I was a manager for the sports teams, so I traveled with all the teams and spent a lot of time with Wayne and the other guys on the teams. Outside of school, Wayne and I double-dated quite often, whenever one of us could get the use of the family car.

As our lives moved on and we started to raise our families, we didn’t see each other very often, but we still maintained our friendship. So when Wayne’s son Jeff emailed and told me that Wayne had died, it was a real shock. I knew that he had some health issues, but I didn’t think that death was so imminent. I felt a real sense of loss.

And then last week, I received word that one of my childhood friends, Connie Lutz, had died from a virulent form of leukemia. Ironically, I had just received an email a couple of weeks ago in which Connie asked me for Wayne’s email address; she wanted to get in touch with him. Wayne and Connie were my double-date partners.

Connie and I grew up on neighboring farms and knew each other as little kids. My sister Joyce and I spent many hours playing with Connie and her brother Tom, and we remained good friends all through high school. Connie and I kept in touch for a few years after high school but, like many high school friendships I suppose, we kind of lost touch except for class reunions and an occasional weekend at home.

At this point in my life, I have to accept that death is a reality. I accept that, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t be devastated when someone I love dies. I have be able to focus on my grief and not be burdened by bigger existential questions like, “Why do good people have to die?” and “Why is this happening to me?” Death happens to us all.

Three years ago, I was diagnosed with stage four cancer and, believe me, I thought about my mortality and about death. I thought about it a lot, especially during the long nights in the hospital. I asked myself, if I was going to die, did I want to do it kicking and screaming or in a peaceful surrender? What type of character did I hope to display? Was I content with the way I had lived my life so far? And during those 10 long nights in the hospital, I decided that I had a lot to live for. I had the love of a wonderful wife and great kids and grandkids, and I decided that I was going to fight as hard as I could to make the best of whatever time I had left.

I have a strong faith, and I believed in the doctors and medical personnel who were taking care of me. Their intelligence and their compassion buoyed my spirits and gave me confidence. I decided not to let the cancer beat me. I realized that people are so much stronger than we imagine, and faith is one of the strongest and long-lived human characteristics. Without it, we would be left with nothing but an overwhelming feeling of doom, and who wants to live that way?

So the loss of my two wonderful friends in the last couple of weeks made me revisit some of the deep thinking I had done in those first weeks of my own illness. My grief at the loss of Wayne and Connie is deep, but I have to believe that they fought their own battles bravely, and that their bodies just gave out. I will miss them both.