Most every network, including ESPN and Fox Sports, seems to have a list of those "great" and "important" people who passed away during the past year. USA Today has a special edition it calls "Passages" to review the deaths of the year. This year there has been much ado about the death of Apple founder and genius Steve Jobs. Reportedly, on his death bed, his last words were, "Wow! Oh Wow!" It was Jobs who said at a commencement address at Stanford University in 2005, "No one wants to die, and yet death is the destination we all share."
But, "Oh Wow!" What did he see?
It must have been amazing, soothing and calm. It must have been something that verified his life as a great contributor to human progress and a vision that validated his life on Earth. Was he making his way toward heaven?
"Wow! Oh Wow!"
His vision must have been ecstatic. After all, he did change the world. President Obama summarized it all by saying Jobs was "brave enough to think differently, bold enough to believe he could change the world and talented enough to do it."
"Wow! Oh Wow!"
Perhaps, Jobs had seen "the light" which those who have come back from near-death experiences claim. For we Christians, "The Light" is symbolic of our religion and is like a stairway, or the very least, a big lit-up funnel toward heaven. Its religious significance is full of saint or sinner implications and salvation from damnation. But, do we all see the light?
My personal experiences with death have been, to say the least, sobering. I have witnessed many deaths - mainly of close ones and relatives - in my life. I don't believe anyone had as near a pleasant an experience as Steve Jobs did. Death, even that of Jesus Christ's, is generally not a pleasant experience. As the Kenny Rogers' song says, "The best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep."
Life is, indeed, a gamble.
My first "death" experience was that of my great uncle Jose Angel Flores. I used to call him 'buelo (grandpa) 'cause that's what I was told to call him. I was 5 0r 6. For some reason, we needed firewood. We went to the ranch where Tío Juan Ramos worked, about 10 miles south of my hometown of Hebbronville. Jose Angel always wore khaki pants and shirts. It was a hot South Texas day, too hot to be walking in the Chaparral looking for pieces of firewood while wearing heavy cotton clothing. But, that's what he did. Jose Angel was a strong man, big and solid. He really had never been sick and now, approaching his 80s, was the face of good health. He didn't smoke and drink and had led a very healthy life, with maybe the exception of a very Mexicano diet that included chicharrones (pork rinds), tripas (tripe) and cow head and pork barbacoa. We had been out on the ranch brush country for about 10 minutes, not too far away from a ranch road. Suddenly, Jose Angel grabbed his chest. His face was that of disbelief. He slowly sunk into the ground, saliva pouring out of one side of his mouth as he hit the dirt in front of us. His eyes were dilated as if asking "Why?" He truly was not ready to go and had planned, I believe, some sort of family feast that night. He had been fattening up a hog near the homestead close to town. Tío Juan Ramos looked at me and said, "Go for help (in Spanish)". But where? I ran to the dirt road and it just happened that the family was making its way back to the rancho in a older model car. We rushed Jose Angel into the car and rushed to town. We took him home and, on the way, had stopped to let Dr. Zack know of our dilemma. Jose Angel was alive in the car. When at the house, we lay him on his bed. His breath was measured and he had peed on his pants, something a proud man would not have done, even in his old age. He looked perplexed. Then, he looked at the family one more time....he never spoke...and closed his eyes. By the time Dr. Zack arrived, he was gone. He was an old man, but I'm sure he thought it was too soon. He had much to live for and much yet to teach us. We would miss him dearly for years, and still do. There were no "Oh wows" when he left us, but as we Christians believe, it was his time.
I remember my father's death as if it were yesterday. He died in a car accident. I remember his last facial expression - it was one both of horror and determination. Manuel Flores Sr. died trying to save his wife, my mom Maria, from dying. We were in Oilton, Texas, when a car hit us from behind on U.S. 359 right around downtown. His last words, less than a few seconds before, had been "En nombre sea de dios (roughly, in God's name we go)." As the crash from behind us drowned the silence of the brush country surrounding the quaint oil hamlet between Hebbronville and Laredo, the car doors (we did not wear seat belts in those days) swung open and my mom, seating on the passenger side, almost flew out the windows. My dad flew through the air, grabbing her arm and pulling her back in as the car made three turns in the air. He was flung out the passenger side door, his body passing me in a blur. Still, the car door crushed my mom's leg as my dad fell out into the nearby gravel on the side of the road. The car fell on his upper torso, crushing him and killing him instantly. Miraculously, I was fine. Seating in the middle of the back seat with some baseball cards in my hand, what I witnessed seemed surreal. I knew dad had been thrown out of the car. As the car came to rest, I ran out of back window yelling " 'apa, 'apa (Dad, Dad)." I saw his legs up in the air and figured the rest of his body was trapped inside the car. I touched the legs and they fell down with a thud I can still hear. He was crushed. There was no room between his body and the car. None. In shock for a while, I knew he was gone. I had seen death before. I was 9. I then ran around to help my mom and the other two passengers in the car. I don't believe my father saw any lights. There was no time for it. But, later, my other abuleo, Pedro Chapa, told me my dad's soul was taking care of me now. So, perhaps, his soul did see the light. I know one thing, his last second on Earth was not pretty. And, for the record, every now and then when I'm sleeping at night I look around my bedroom and in the corner of the room, I see him standing there. I look older than he does now. He just stands there, hands crossed in front of him, smiling, as if saying, "You're going to be okay. It's not your time yet." Why are there violent deaths? It makes no sense.
I lost my grandmother, Nana (Julia Flores, my dad's Manuel Flores' mother) during the height of a hurricane on the Texas Gulf coast. She had been having cholesterol problems and her body was worn down due to the hard work as a young woman. She was frail, but very strong of mind and heart. Finally, her heart gave out. Nearing 80, she was hospitalized at Spohn Hospital on Corpus Christi Bay. Almost immediately, in the hospital, they told us she was dying and was only a matter of days. She had been in a nursing home for her last five years, except for weekends when I took her to my house. Her dying wish was that she could die at my home. Oh, wow. There, in the hospital, we all knew that she would not get that wish. The doctors told us she would not make it. As her veins constricted she would cringe in pain. I hated to see her suffer. I asked the doctors and nurses to give her something for the pain. They said it didn't matter 'cause she was dying any way. It's one of the few times I lost my temper. "At least let her die in peace and not pain," I yelled at them loud enough that my voice echoed down the near empty hallways and startled a skeleton staff due to many evacuations because of the approaching storm. They felt they didn't need to move Nana, she was going to die any way. I still remember her eyes, the last time she looked at me. They were the epitome of sadness. Perhaps it was my imagination, but there was a sense of disappointment in her stare at me. It was as if she was saying, "Take me home. Take me home now. I don't have long for this earth. I want to die in a house your home." I thought I heard her whisper "Junior" - her name for me as I got older. I said, "Si Nana. Mande (Yes, what do you need, basically)." But she turned away from me without saying a word. I looked for a priest, but they too had evacuated. Sadness and darkness filled her room. Close family members could not come to see her 'cause of the approaching storm. The light from the hallway and the dark clouds we could see from the window certainly had a deathly fluorescent, greenish glow. Sadness engulfed the room. My Nana was dying and she did not get her dying wish. She died peacefully in her sleep, but she was drugged out of her mind thanks to my screaming command at the understaffed nursing center. Did Nana see lights? Did she say, "Oh wow," or the equivalent. I think her last thoughts were that of disappointment in me and of not having her wish fulfilled. I also still see her in my dreams. At least she's happy, now. At least she's in heaven. I wonder if she is still disappointed. I can't tell. I can't tell.
My mom's death was expected. Cancer and other maladies had eaten away at this once bubbly and vivacious woman. In the end, she was drugged and not at all cognizant of her surroundings. It was devastating for my sisters, my uncle Pete (her brother) and my step-dad Amando. We all knew Mom had a rough life, losing her mom at childbirth and then going from home-to-home as a young girl and teen-ager. Still, she was a fighter, a survivor. She had fought a good fight and now it was her last round at life. We watched her slip away from us in a hospital room, too. Deeply religious, perhaps she saw the light. Perhaps. Death took her away before she would see her great-grand kids grow up - the one last thing she longed for. So now, all we have is photos of her to show. Oh wow, if they only had met her. They would be impressed at this feisty lady with the quick-witted mind and somewhat athletic tendency. We remember the good times. We remember she was a Notre Dame fan and believed in "Touchdown Jesus" even when they were playing a Texas team. We laugh now, but I wonder. Perhaps her death vision was that of Jesus with his hands up in the air signalling touchdown and welcoming her to heaven. Perhaps. I don't see her as much in my dreams or visions. Perhaps it's because she suffered too much in this Earth and is busy enjoy the fruits of heaven now. Perhaps.
Oh Wow. Steve Jobs had the best death ever reported in modern history. Oh wow, I wonder of my own mortality. I'm not ready to go, I know that. But, I will accept death, if I have the time. But, like the Gambler in Kenny Rogers' western ballad said, "The best that we can hope for is to die in your sleep."