Steven stared blankly through the floor-to-ceiling window, completely ignoring his doctor, who was seated in a black leather chair behind a massive mahogany desk. While the doctor continued to drone on in a matter-of-fact tone regarding a variety of medical explanations, percentages, possible surgical procedutes with their accompanying specialists; Steven found jimself staring at the beauty of the Continental Divide through unseeing eyes made blind by shock. His visit to the doctor was a routine visit for a yearly physical that had turned into something far from routine, at least for him. Judging from the monotone of the doctor’s voice, telling a man that he was dying was something he had some experience with. To be fair, the doctor’s tone may have had as much to do with his own person defense mechanism in having to give such devastating news. Steven’s immediate response to the news was to shut out the rest of the information given by the doctor until he could put his mind around his own mortality.
Coming for the physical hadn’t even been Steven’s idea, he thought aimlessly. In fact, he’d been irritated by the intrusion into his workday. However, when your boss tells you to do something, you generally do it. That’s expecially true when your boss is the C.E.O. and owner of the company. Michael Flinders was a hard charging entrepreneur whose real estate development company had become a major player not only in its home town of Denver, but also in the surrounding states. Actually, they were gaining influence and market share in the entire Western region of the United States. Michael’s plan was to eventually be a leader in the world of high finance real estate development. To accomplish that goal, however, The Flinders Company would need the drive and ability of its Chief Financial Officer: Steven O’Rourke. That meant Steven’s health was not only a matter of personal significance, but also a company priority. Therefore, the prognosis that had been delivered to Steven would hava a long range impack not only on Steven O’Rourke and his family, but also on Michael Flinders and the Board of Directors of The Flinders Company.
As the mental camera of Steven’s imagination began to pan around the faces of his family, the doctor’s voice broke through his mental haze long enough to bring his attention back into the office and to the fact that he and the doctor were alone in the office.
“Do you understand what I’ve just told you Mr. O’Rourke,” the doctor queried?
“Honestly, no, Doctor. I’d really like some time to think about this before I put together a plan of action. I mean, there is so much I have to do at work before I can really…”
The doctor gently broke in, “Michael Flinders might not like me to say this, but, actually, Steven, in light of your condition, there are probably more urgent issues needing your attention than your work.”
Steven was surprised by his own inward response to that statement. His immediate, unvoiced response was, “More important than work? You obviously don’t understand the nature of my job to the success and well-being of the company.” His outward response, however, was to drop his gaze to the lavish carpet and mumble, “Then what do I do?”
“Why don’t you take the rest of the day off? Talk to your family. We have counselors and chaplains here in the hospital I could refer you to if you’d like. This really isn’t something you can handle alone,” the doctor instructed.
“Uh, yeah Doc… That’s a good idea,” Steven responded, the old ‘Can-Do’ tone gingerly creeping into his voice from habit. Steven presented his hand to the doctor and firmly shook hands while averting direct eye contact. Self-consciously retreating from the hospital to the solitude of his SUV, Steven habitually reached for his cell phone and called the office after starting the motor. As his secretaty answered the phone, Steven began to drive aimlessly through the parking lot and turned on the street that would lead to his home. Steven routinely asked, “Do I have any mess…,” and then interrupting himself, took a deep breath and slowly said, “Stacey, I’m going to take the rest of the day off.”
“Really,” an astonished Stacey responded, caught herself and stuttered, ” I m-m-mean… what should I tell Mr. Flinders? He called already regarding the most recent figures for the Board of Directors meeting on Friday.”
“I bet,” Steven thought. After a moment of thought, Steven said, “Tell Michael that I will be in touch.”
“Ok… It’s your funeral!” Stacey quipped.
“It sure is,” Steven responded quietly with a sardonic smile.
“Excuse me?” asked Stacey.
“Never mind Stacey, refer any questions he has to my cell phone, OK? And Stacey,” he hesitated, “thanks for your hard work and committment to me in the past months. You have been the best assistan I’ve ever had.”
After a long silence Stacey said, “Well thank you Mr…”
“It’s Steven, Stacey. From now on make it Steven, OK?”
“Um…OK. Thank you, Steven,” she said quietly, “and don’t worry,” she added with more strength, “I will take care of Mr. Michael Flinders.”
“Your welcome, Steven.”
The sudden tenderness of the business conversation surprised Steven. His own words of thanks and praise to Stacey surprised not only her, but himself as well. However, as he began to think about it, he felt ashamed he had taken her hard work for granted. As he remembered tha many times he had spoken harshly to her for an imagined mistake and then thought of the times she had taken responsibility for one of his mistakes, his shame began to turn to feelings of actual guilt. Suddenly, from inside his own mind, a voice said, “You can change that, you know.”
Change? The irony of the thought brought a sudden rush of water to his eyes. His tears began to trickle at first, making driving with any manner of skill a joke due to his blurred vision. Steven thought, “I better get off the road before I get into an accident.” Turning into a parking lot in front of Kmart, he started laughing at that thought. “So… I get into an accident… So what? What difference does it make? I’m dying and I can’t change anything about it! Nothing matters anymore!” This thought continued to reverberate within his soul as his breathing became racked with uncontrolled sobs. Sitting alone inside his personal symbol of affluence, a bitter understanding of his own ultimate powerlessness crashed in on Steven’s being as he was rocked by the waves of grief over his unfulfilled hopes, plans, and dreams.
When his tears were at ebb tide, a faint sound crept into his conscious mind. It was his cell phone. Unaware how long it had been ringing, Steven composed himself enough to answer.
“Steven? Steven! Where are you? I’ve called your cell several times and called the office and Stacey seemed worried about you. Where are you?”
It was the voice of Valerie, his wife. Suddenly, Steven knew that something did matter. The most important thing to him at this particular moment was to go home. To kiss his wife. To hold his children, Melissa and Kyle.
“I’m sorry Valerie, I’m driving home. I just ran into a detour. I’m coming straight home now.”
Valerie’s tone softened, “Home? I figured you would go back to work after your physical. Is everything OK?”
“Its funny, but just hearing your voice changes a lot.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Never mind, I’ll be home in a few minutes.” He paused and then said, “I love you, Valerie.”
“Well, I love you too, Steven, but what…?”
Steven pushed the “end” button, ending the conversation and leaving the rest of the question unheard an unanswered. As he put the Hummer into gear and began to pull out of the parking lot, his progress was stopped short by something he’d barely noticed in the six years they had lived in Denver. Gazing to the west, Steven caught his breath as he focused on the magnificense of the front range of the Rocky Mountains. It was as if he were seeing them for the first time. Something about their majesty seemed to invite him to journey into a greater depth of perspective about his life. Or about what was left of it anyway.
Steven quickly drove home and pulled into the driveway. For some reason, rather than going into the garage, he parked in the driveway and strode up the front walk to the front door. With every step, it seemed as if a mist was suddenly clearing and there was such clarity to all his senses that he had never experienced before. As he approached the front door, and grasped the knob, he realized that it was locked and he didn’t have a key. So, Steven did the next best thing, he pushed the doorbell to his own home. He watched as Valerie peeked out the side window to see who her visitor was before she opened the door. The sight of Valerie’s confused, smiling face as she swung open the huge oak door brought a chuckle from Steven as he dropped his briefcase and scooped her up in a huge, lingering hug.
“Man, it is SO good to see you…,” came pouring out of Steven in a hoarse whisper.
“Steven… WHAT is going on?” Valerie asked worriedly.
“Where are the kids?” Steven asked quickly.
“Well, they are around here somewhere, why?”
An idea was quickly forming in Steven’s mind and that meant he was about to do something completely out of character for him. Normally, he wasn’t the kind of person to do something on the spur of the moment. Being an accountant, Steven always planned every detail ob anything he was involved in and then followed the plan in minute. detail. Family vacations were always planned perfectly to get the most value and actionpacked into the shortest time possible. They were so packed, however, that the family returned home more stressed and exhausted than when they left. To be honest, though, FAMILY vacations in the past four years had consisted of Valerie and the kids going to her parents’ house in Nebraska. Steven planned their trip, but stayed in Denver to work on the latest major project so important to The Flinders Company.
A slow smile began to work its way across his face as Steven said, “Let’s go into the mountains today and go fishing. You find Melissa and put together a picnic lunch. I’ll find Kyle and we’ll find the fishing gear, OK?”
“Steven O’Rourke, we don’t HAVE any fishing equiptment let alone a picnic basket. Are you crazy?” Valerie good naturedly asked, “What’s wrong with you? Doctor tell you you’re dying or something?”
“Don’t worry about the doctor, let’s just have fun today.” Steven said with a smile.
After finding the kids, they climbed into the Hummer, stopped by a strip mall for Steven and Kyle to stock up on some fishing gear and for Valerie and Melissa to get a picnic basket and some food for their lunch. They then drove into the mountains to a lake that a clerk in the sporting goods store suggested. For the rest of the afternoon, the family really enjoyed the day and each other for the first time in a long time. Maybe ever. They did funny things. Steven and Kyle both caught fish and were afraid to touch them, so Valerie and Melissa had to remove the hook and then release the fish back into the lake. Valerie was, after all, a Nebraska farm girl. Obviously, Valerie and Melissa couldn’t let the guys live down their cowardice and teased them mercilessly. Eventually, the guys tired of the teasing and planned a counterattack. While Valerie and Melissa were standing at the edge of the lake, Steven and Kyle grabbed each by the waist and pushed them into the water. Then, as they screamed and Kyle laughed, Steven grabbed Kyle and threw him into the lake beside the two cheering girls. Finally, as Valerie, Melissa, and Kyle chanted his name, Steven grabbed his own lapel and propelled himself into the water with them. Surfacing next to Valerie, he wrapped his arms around her and gave her a huge kiss as both kids showered them with splashes and a chorus of “Yuck!” and “Gross.”
After climbing out of the lake, Steven started a fire (at Valerie’s direction) so they could dry their clothes and make some s’mores (another Valerie lesson). Several times during the afternoon, Steven’s cell phone rang repeatedly. Nobody noticed, however, because it was in the cab of the Hummer. Instead, Steven, Valerie, Melissa, and Kyly O’Rourke began the process of reinventing their family by spending time together and blocking out the rest of the world. In spite of the life changing news he had received earlier in the day, Steven O’Rourke was fully present in the moment.
Gone were the preoccupied stares that were his previous habit while with his family in the past.
Gone were the cell phone and computer.
Gone was the television with the business channels or the Wall Street Journal.
Steven O’Rourke was symbolically wrapped in the collective arms of his wife and children. He was just beginning to learn who they were, after a long, emotional absence. However, if his family had been watching him closely, they would have seen faint glimpses of intermittent sadness that would gently slide over his face. How ironic it was that just as he was beginning to learn how to live, he instead would prepare to die. This thought especially captured his mood as they sat by the fire, watching the sun disappear behind the towering peaks, painting the sky in a multi-colored spectacular light show as day turned the corner into evening.
“What are you thinking?” Valerie asked as she studied his face, surrounded by one of his long arms.
“I was just thinking that I’m the luckiest man in the whole wide world.” Steven replied. In the back of his mind, a gentle voice, quietly instructed from a verse memorized while Steven was in college:
“But he’s already made it plain how to live,
what to do,
what God is looking for in men and women.
It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just
to your neighbor,
be compassionate and loyal in your love,
and don’t take yourself too seriously—-
take God seriously.”
Quite unexpectedly, Steven quoted the verse as the four of them sat quietly in the gathering darkness. He then said, “I know I haven’t been the kind of father and husband you guys have needed. I’ve allowed so much stuff to crowd the most important things out of my life. I spend so much time preparing for tomorrow, or next week, or next year, and I can’t even be sure I will have a next minute. Only God knows and holds the future. Somewhere along the line I guess I figured I could make tomorrow obey the orders that I program today. I’m finding out that I’m not that important to tomorrow, but today needs my utmost attention. I’m sorry I have neglected not only you, but also God. I promise you I will use every today God grants me to be fully involved in your lives and that we will be fully involved in God’s life. I love you guys…”
A shrill beep from Steven’s cell phone inside the Hummer put a fiery exclamation point on Steven’s promise. Since they had built the fire closer to the vehicle, the phone’s angry reminder tones called Steven back to his previous existence. As he checked the number, he noted that it was Michael’s home number. Shaking his head with a snort, Steven said, “Well guys, we better get home.”
While Valerie quietly began to gather their belongings, the kids whined, “Oh Dad…”
“I know,” Steven responded, “but I meant what I said and we will do this again…soon!”
Placing all their items in the back of the SUV, they began the dark drive along curving roads back into Denver. As they drove and the kids fell asleep from the active day, Steven said to Valerie, “I need to tell you something.”
“I thought something was up…” Valerie replied.
Steven then began to tell Valerie not about the doctor’s visit of the morning, but rather about some business deals he and Michael had created. While the deals were great for the company in the short term, they weren’t successful because they earned money, but because they hid significant losses the company had made in the past two years. The deals had been struck to create a false financial profile of the company for investors so the stock price would go up and they could ride the inflated price on to greater profits for themselves, upper management, and the Board of Directors. From the outside, everything appeared to be fine, but Steven knew that what they were doing was wrong and even though many companies did similar deals, the real health of the company was ailing. In recent days, a remarkable thing had happened. Another company had approached Michael seeking to buy The Flinders Company for a reasonable price considering the inflated stock price, but significantly more than it was really worth. If they took the offer, they would be very rich men and it would take many years to untangle the many money trails hiding their losses. So the question was, “Do we begin to do what is right or live with the lie?” For Steven, however, the real question was, “Do I begin to do what is right or die with the lie?”
To be finished tomorrow…. Same Bat time…. Same Bat channel!