Jack and I were at the YMCA Christmas tree lot in the dark chill of a December night. His breath plumed among the pine branches as he laughed about his recent visit to the orthopedic surgeon. “During my pre-op visit for my hip replacement surgery, the surgeon asked me to list all the medications I was on. When I told him that I didn’t take any, he couldn’t believe it!”
Well, I could believe it. My friend Jack jumped out of an airplane for his 70th birthday. He cross-country skied in cold Minnesota winters. And he was always quick to bring his lanky frame out onto the dance floor where he waved his arms around, shuffled his feet, and grinned with all his teeth.
How could it be that this vital and deeply alive man who never smoked in his life would turn up with terminal lung cancer just a year later?
The diagnosis was a profound shock to him and the many people loved him. Soon after he received the news, he told his wife, Linda Bergh, that he intended to have a conscious death. Not only that, he also decided to have his dying process filmed along the way so other people could learn from his experience. Jack’s sister, Nancy Jewel Poer, offered to make sure the film got made.
Jack invited his many friends and loved ones to join him on his conscious death journey. We’d gather at the home he shared with Linda every week to sing together. Friends who dropped by were welcomed by Jack’s frequent exclamation, “Every day brings some unexpected joy. And today you are that joy for me.”
Whoever was nearby grabbed the video camera to capture his candid reflections on dying, moments with friends and family, and the evening where his community came together in a local church to offer him tribute. There were even scenes from the final vacation he and Linda took to Mexico just weeks before he died.
Jack spent his final days peacefully tucked up in a hospital bed in the aptly named “living room.” He was living into his death and it was strangely beautiful.
The morning he died, friends gathered to prepare his body and put it into a casket specially built by his niece. For the next thirty-six hours, someone was always in the room with his body — singing, praying, meditating, or reading. People of all ages gathered and dispersed. The cat played under the casket. There was a surprising amount of laughter interspersed with the tears and songs.
Witnessing Jack’s conscious death is one of the profoundest gifts of my life. Nearly ten years later our community is still harvesting blessings from all we learned from Jack. His generous gift will continue to echo through each of our lives as we face other deaths including our own.
Thanks, Jack. You did good.
The film is a true reflection of what it was like to witness “The Most Excellent Dying of Theodore Jack Heckelman.” To see a trailer and learn how to order a copy: