"And the Best that you can hope for is...

is to die in your sleep.”

If you immediately knew the rest of that lyric, then you are probably a fan of Kenny Rogers, or at least a fan of the song, “The Gambler.” Although I have sung the lyrics, “You’ve got to know when to hold em, know when to fold em,” probably a thousand times in my life, I didn’t know the rest of the song until August 11, the day before my dad died.

My dad was a professional poker player, which was kind of a rarity among the suburban dads of Fargo, North Dakota. Not only was his profession rare, It was also illegal, so we kind of kept it on the down low until my parents divorced and he moved to Las Vegas to legitimize his vocation. I used to joke that my dad lived his life adhering to the advice of a Kenny Rogers song, but in a way he did. More on that in a minute.

Several years ago, my dad began experiencing brain seizures that took away his ability to find words. He also couldn’t remember people that he’d known for twenty years, like my husband when he went to pick him up from the airport. At times, I wasn’t even sure he knew who I was. When he moved in with my brother about a year and a half ago, I would take him out for dinner every few weeks to Outback Steakhouse. We didn’t do a lot of talking as it frustrated him, so we spent the dinner playing Gin Rummy. The man couldn’t remember the names of my children, but he could beat me at cards. (And I’m pretty good at cards). He also thought the Victoria Filet was the “best damn steak he’d ever eaten.” I considered this pretty darn funny as my dad, no matter where you took him, always knew of someplace better. The man LOVED steak. So the fact that he loved a reasonably priced chain restaurant made me kind of happy.

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Even though my dad swore he was going to live to be one-hundred-years-old, he lost interest in eating. The last time I took him to Outback, he told me he didn’t like steak anymore. This was a shocker, as my dad loved to eat. Disheartened, I ordered him chicken strips from the kid’s menu. When he refused to eat that, I asked if he liked iced cream. He replied, “Who doesn’t"? It was a rare moment of clarity and comedy, amidst the saddening realization that my dad was getting ready to “fold em.”

When my dad began actively dying in a nursing facility, I decided to spend every day with him, which wasn’t easy.

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It is rather difficult to watch someone you love fade before your very eyes. I had to fight against my natural instinct to force foods and fluids. He was dying and I needed to accept that his body instinctively knew what it needed to do. All I needed to do was bear witness, tell him I loved him and hold his hand. I did bring him a soft lavender wrap for his neck and he seemed to like it.

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The night before my dad died, his breathing became agonal and I worried about leaving him alone. The hospice nurse assured me that many people want their loved ones to leave so that they can die without anyone in the room. I figured my dad would do this as he was kind of a loner…a rebel. But, when I returned the next morning, he was still alive. A few minutes after arriving, I decided to call my stepmom and tell her that my dad was dying. I figured that even though they were no longer together, he still would want her to know what was going on. We talked for a good twenty minutes. I asked if she would like to say goodbye to him. (Hearing is the last sense to go.)She got choked up and began to cry. She said she didn’t want to say goodbye to him but that she would see him later. She likes to talk and unbeknownst to her, I held up the phone to my dad’s ear. After I hung up, I told him during his narcotic slumber that she would see him later. Within seconds, his face relaxed and he died. I looked at my husband, unsure of what had just transpired. He fetched the nurse and she confirmed my dad’s passing. If anything, my dad’s death was peaceful and by golly, he died in his sleep, just like the Kenny Roger’s song.

In the days following his death, my sister Paula and I wrote an obituary and decided that we’d honor him next summer in his home town. In the meantime, I needed a sense of closure. After receiving his cremains, I made a box for my stepsister, Stacy, who had requested some of his cremains. And then I booked a ticket for Vegas.

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My dad’s birthday is September 10. My 19th wedding anniversary is September 11. And I got married in Vegas. So, what better way to honor Bob Johnson than to fly to Vegas and sprinkle his cremains in the poker room where he used to play.

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And then eat at his favorite steak house.

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Yeah, we broke the law, but i t was worth it. We have a memory. A story. Something to tell the grandkids.

On the morning of my departure, I had a pretty serious crying jag in the shower. My dad’s death hit me hard. It was finally dawning on me that everyone I knew and loved was going to die, including myself. I’m not talking tomorrow, but one day. Some day.

But you know what? Since all I’m guaranteed is today, I better make the time I’m alive and kicking worth writing about.

Writing About the Death Penalty

If you've read Death Becomes Us, you know that I communicated with two different men on death row. For my MFA thesis, I contacted Khristian Oliver to speak with someone who knew the day they were going to die. (That sounds horrible and callous, but I guess you'd have to read my book to understand.)

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The second man, Larry Matthew Puckett, had the same spiritual adviser as Khristian and he asked if I'd also write to Matt. Matt wrote about his life on death row in Mississippi, as well as the men who were scheduled for execution. I agreed and we corresponded until he was executed in March of 2012.

 

I met Jamie Arpin-Ricci, one of Matt's other penpals, via Facebook and we have remained friends. (True tidbit...he designed my book's cover!) As a fellow writer who has tackled the difficult topic of the death penalty in America, I decided to invite him on the blog to talk about his book. So, welcome Jamie!

 
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Jamie Arpin-Ricci

 

Jamie Arpin-Ricci is an author, speaker, and community advocate living in the inner city of Winnipeg, Canada with his wife & two children. He is the pastor of Little Flowers Community, an inner city Mennonite church. He has written several books, including "The Last Verdict", “The Cost of Community: Jesus, St. Francis, & Life in the Kingdom”, “Vulnerable Faith: Missional Living in the Radical Way of St. Patrick”, and several other books.

 

What is your book, The Last Verdict, about?

"The Last Verdict" tells the story of two mothers whose lives collide because of a tragic murder- the mother of the victim and the mother of the man condemned for her death. The story follows their complicated and heart-wrenching pursuit of justice for their children.

What was the genesis of this book?

Several years ago I read a novel about death row. While I had long been ideologically opposed to the death penalty, the story touched something in me, pushing me to go deeper. I knew that I needed to personalize the topic. So I became pen pals with two men on death row. I chose one of the men, Matt Puckett, because we were born almost a month apart.

Matt and I soon became good friends, writing regularly about things such as justice, faith, reading, and life on death row. Through him I became friends with several of his family members, especially his mother, Mary. Before Matt was executed, I asked me to use my writing to try to change people's hearts and minds about capital punishment.

I struggled to know what to write for quite some time. However, through my continued friendship with Mary I began to be moved by her mothers heart. Aside from the ethics and politics of capital punishment, I realized that on both sides of a murder are people who deeply loved those involved. So I decided to write a story that helped people get a glimpse at both sides.

You mention with Matt that you reached out to him because of your closeness in age. Were you scared about communicating with someone on death row?

I suppose I should have been at least nervous, but to be honest, I wasn't. As my wife will tell you, I have an uncommon ease with reaching out to people who others might be afraid of. I was cautious, as I didn't know what to expect. The cynic in me wondered if they would be honest with me, so I was somewhat guarded. Matt quickly put me at ease.

What one thing about the death penalty would you want people to know. I ask this, as most people don't really know much about it, until it touches
them personally.

I think it is just that: It has to be personal for us to meaningfully engage on the issue. I've always said, if you are going to be for the death penalty, I hope you do so with a heavy heart knowing that we get it wrong so often, and even when we get it right, it harms innocent people. And if you are going to be against the death penalty, I hope you do so with a heavy heart knowing what that means to the victims family and friends. It shouldn't be easy, regardless of what side you take.

I would also say that we need to dismantle our binary "good guy vs. bad guy" mentality. We want our bad guys unredeemable and our good guys pure as the driven snow. Because we think in these terms, we all too often don't consider the potential for a wrongful conviction on a murder because the person has a record of abuse or crime. Matt was the first to admit to me that he was no angel before his arrest. Yet, too many people will use those things to write off the possibility of innocence. I wonder if we do this, in part, because to acknowledge that complexity means acknowledging that none of us are angels.

Do you still communicate with anyone on death row?

Yes. On the same day I began writing Matt, I chose another man to correspond with. Ron Smith is the only Canadian on US death row (in Montana). Ron never denied his guilt. So overwhelmed with grief over the brutal murder he committed while high, he requested the death penalty. While he received his sentence in 1983, he has been on death row ever since. It didn't take him long to change his mind about wanting to die. It is unlikely that Montana will ever follow through with his sentence. He's a very nice man.

Do you have any new books in the works?

I have a couple of projects on the go, including a coming-of-age novel and a progressive Christian theology book. Ideas are never in short supply, but with a 15 month old baby, time and energy are.

Thanks, Jamie, for taking the time to answer my questions!

If you'd like to reach out to Jamie...

http://www.jamiearpinricci.com
http://facebook.com/JamieArpinRicci
http://twitter.com/jamiearpinricci
http://instagram.com/jamiearpinricci
http://pinterest.com/jamiearpinricci

If you, dear reader, would like to share your story on my blog, whether it's about working in a death profession or the death of a loved one, please contact me! Let's continue to keep the conversation flowing!

Also, don't be afraid to comment, ask questions, or like these posts. I don't bite.