TRUST ME MICHAEL
by Michael Lueth
On the morning of August 5, 1994 I visited my mom in her room at Alexian Brothers Medical Center in Elk Grove Village, IL. She had recently been admitted due to complications from a kidney and lung cancer she had been fighting for the past several years. Health-wise, things were starting to head downhill and although she realized that fact, her spirits were high and she was looking forward to being transferred to a nursing home for a period of convalescence.
We had a good talk and I left saying I would stop in again next week, and I then drove over to my parents’ house in Itasca to visit with my dad. I pulled into the driveway and entered the kitchen through the side door. I looked out the back windows and saw dad making long swaths up and down the lawn as he mowed the grass. As he neared the house, I waved but he couldn’t see me through the sun’s reflection off of the window.
Just then the house phone rang. It was one of my mom’s best friends telling me we had to get back to the hospital right away. What could have happened in the 45 minutes since I had left?
I quickly went out to get dad and we hurried back to the hospital. When we arrived, mom had been moved into the Intensive Care Unit and she looked twenty years older since we spoke earlier that morning. Her eyes were open but she was not conscious as her body struggled for breath. Perhaps another ten minutes went by and she was gone.
I remember dad and I leaving the hospital and walking to the car in silence. I think we were both just stunned. How quickly life changed for us that morning, but mostly for dad. They had met in their late teens and married when they were both twenty-three. They raised their three children and lived most of their married lives in a modest two-story house that was built the same year I was born. They worked hard, had good friends, bowled, played cards and golfed together. Their life was not a fairy-book story but perhaps it was a much simpler time when devotion and fidelity meant more than it seems to today. They each only had one love in life and now half of that love was gone.
Dad and I made the wake and funeral arrangements and we honored mom with a great celebration of a life that ended much too soon at only 76 years.
In the following months I would drive out to my parents’ house twice a week to visit with dad, assisting with all those details following my mom’s death and also just help out with the normal day-to-day particulars. Mom was always the one who handled the household side of things – paying the bills, grocery shopping, cooking. Dad wasn’t much of a “talker” and never showed his emotions, so it was hard to get a read on how he was doing but the look on his face told the story anyway. He just didn’t know how to handle these details. So he would have things ready to go on the kitchen table – a stack of bills, the checkbook, a grocery list, etc. Much of this routine was done in silence. After 53 years of marriage, this would be quite the lifestyle change for him. In time I figured we’d be more successful with our communications but for now I was just glad to be able to help him with these chores.
Then on the morning of November 18th, I found myself in a downtown Chicago waiting room at Rush Presbyterian Hospital. My older sister Kathy was having brain surgery to relieve pressure from the base of her skull that was slowly paralyzing her arms due to a congenital defect of her spinal column.
As I waited with my brother-in-law Paul and niece Stacey, an announcement came over the intercom system that I had a call waiting and it directed me to the nearest phone. It was my wife Joyce calling to tell me that dad had just collapsed and died. My brain just sort of went numb for a minute – both of our parents were now gone in just over three months? But a moment was about all I felt I could afford. I certainly couldn’t stay in Chicago. I had to get back; I just had to get back to where they had taken my dad. I didn’t know what I would need to do, but I just needed to get back.
I said goodbye to Paul and Stacey and left to make the hour drive back to Dad’s house in Itasca. From the car, I called my best friend and Cousin Steve to tell him the news and arranged to meet up with him at my parents’ home and plan our next steps from there.
Since his retirement from the fire department some ten years earlier, dad had worked as a ranger at Poplar Creek Golf Course in Hoffman Estates. He loved the game. Most of mom and dad’s vacations in their later years were planned around courses they wanted to play. He also loved riding around on a cart watching over the players and the course and making conversation with most of the people he met. He called everyone ‘Sam.’ On that November morning he was turning in his keys, since the course was closing for the winter. He walked into the pro shop and while holding the keys in his outstretched hand he said, “Well, I guess this is my last day ….” And with those prophetic words, he dropped dead instantly. It appears he had either had a fatal stroke, aneurism or massive heart attack. Because of his age there wouldn’t be an autopsy.
The golf course was the first stop Steve and I made and the golf pro (still somewhat shaken) recounted this story to us and expressed his condolences. Next, we headed over to Humana Hospital in Hoffman Estates where they had taken the body to collect his personal belongings; his wallet, watch, some loose change and a half-smoked pack of Winstons (although he had told us he had stopped smoking years earlier). After that, Steve went back to Rockford and I headed home to absorb what had just happened and discuss with Joyce what we would need to do next. It had been a surreal day that started in a surgery waiting room and ended needing to plan yet another funeral.
This would be the second funeral I would be making the arrangements for in these past few months. When mom died in August my older brother Ron (who lived in rural Rhode Island) was on vacation in Hawaii and my sister Kathy was with her husband Paul scuba diving in upper Lake Michigan and staying in an “off the grid” cabin at night, with no way of contacting them. I called the local authorities there as well as the Coast Guard and was eventually able to locate them after two days. Ron would fly back home and then head on over to Chicago. But it had been up to me to meet with the funeral director and my parents’ pastor to plan my mother’s wake and funeral service. Now, I would need to have those same meetings for dad’s service, since Kathy was in the hospital following her surgery and Ron was still on the east coast.
Strange times. I never really felt I had an opportunity to mourn my mom’s death since I initially needed to handle all her funeral details and then give my dad some much needed support in the months afterwards. Now my mind was racing with not only his funeral arrangements, but also the daunting task of handling my parents’ estate.
Dad’s funeral was spectacular – that’s the only word I can think of to describe it. He had been Itasca’s first full-time fire chief so fire trucks, personnel and other emergency equipment from towns as far away as thirty miles showed up to honor and respect him for his years of service. There were literally miles of fire engines, EMT trucks, police and fire squad cars in his funeral procession; including a pair of opposing, extended and crossed hook and ladder trucks draped with American and purple memorial flags. Somehow, remarkably and thankfully, my sister Kathy was able to attend; her bandaged head wrapped in a colorful scarf.
Mom had always wanted me to take on the responsibility of handling their estate, but I was secretly hoping that either Ron or Kathy would step up to do it instead. And no one expected that both of our parents would be gone so soon. There were so many details to be attended to. But Kathy would still need time to recover from her surgery and although Ron was very supportive, there wasn’t much he’d be able to do from 1500 miles away.
I tried to arrange most of the professional meetings at our parents’ house as it seemed to be the most logical meeting place and I also wanted to keep tabs on the building. I was making the ninety minute round trip drive from my home in Algonquin to Itasca about two to three times a week trying to get everything organized. And I was exhausted. For the past ten years I had been dealing with the debilitating effects of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – the most severe being the profound and extreme fatigue and accompanying vertigo. Most nights, traveling back home after a long day of work at the house, I would be driving in a trance-like state; almost hallucinatory. I was having a very tough and scary time.
However, after a month of this routine, it was now a week before Christmas and my eleven year old daughter Jen asked if I could take her shopping to buy some gifts for Joyce. I couldn’t even imagine where I would pull that energy from. I suspected it would go better if she knew what she wanted to buy – if she had a list, instead of just browsing and looking for those ‘just right’ gifts. I knew I wasn’t giving her the best Christmas shopping experience, but it was all I could handle given the current situation. So, with shopping list in hand we headed out.
There were four stops to make and I was pretty much in a fog through all of them. But finally we had everything we needed except for Jen’s card for her mom’s stocking. We stopped at a card and gift shop and as we entered the store I told her to go ahead and look around, but that I was going to stay up near the front of the store. There, near the entrance, were paintings and pictures hanging on the wall from floor to ceiling. I just stared at these pictures thinking about everything that needed to be done. I was exhausted, running on fumes. I had met with agents regarding insurance policies and an old acquaintance offered to prepare the final tax returns, but there were still financial assets to be sorted through and divided, a house full of lifetime memories and contents to be either split with Ron and Kathy or sold, the sale of the house – just more than I could imagine myself doing in my depleted state and I felt a suffocating anxiety and fear weighing down on me.
So standing there, I began to pray, “Lord please help me, I don’t know how I can ….” And just as I shared my thoughts, uncertainty and fears—in that moment of prayer and surrender—I felt this very clear and strong sense that I should look to my left. So I turned and sitting on a glass shelf among the ceramic angels, figurines and mugs printed with their cheerful holiday messages my eyes fixed in on a dark-red wooden frame with light blue matting. Behind the glass pane printed on a white card was the following text stenciled in bold black letters: “Michael – Trust me, I have everything under control. Jesus.” What?! Did that just really happen?!
I actually don’t really remember what I did next. I know I gathered up Jen and paid for her card. But I didn’t buy that framed message. I don’t know why I didn’t. When we got home I immediately told Joyce about my prayer and what I perceived to be God’s reply. Thankfully, she went the next day and bought it. She gave it to me as a Christmas present that year and for the past twenty-plus years it has been sitting on a shelf in my study where I see it every day.
And Jesus was right. Our parents’ estate eventually got handled. It wasn’t easy, but the best people seemed to come from out of nowhere to help with all the legalities and details per my parents’ directive. And after a period of recuperation, Kathy and her husband Paul helped Joyce and me sort through the last of the furnishings and we all came to an agreement on the sale of the house.
So that’s my story. I still struggle with the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and all the craziness it’s brought into our lives. But I don’t feel alone in it. Joyce, Jen and friends have been very supportive but when they can’t help I have another source to rely upon. I’ve been ‘listening’ to God’s voice for as long as I can remember – I’ve always felt his guidance. I haven’t always listened, but those are other stories. He’s helped me with relationships, finances, employment and specialized and supportive physicians when I lost my health. Some people misquote the Bible and think that we will never be given more than we can handle (that verse is actually about temptation). We absolutely will have problems in this world; at the very least no one is getting out of here alive. But there is a real source of strength, wisdom and practical help that is always available to us. What I have found to be true is that God is always there if we’re willing to approach him. And it doesn’t need to be a crisis situation, although that’s when the majority of us find ourselves most willing to call on His name. He’s there 24/7/365 – He’s promised that to us, rain or shine. And everyday I’m reminded of this amazing truth in a framed message He sent me all those years ago.