Journal-Advocate (Sterling)

The bell is tolling for Baby Boomers


I had planned to have lunch with my friend Steve last Friday. Instead, I attended his funeral.

Steve Burnham was my age when he passed away on Nov. 13. We graduated Sterling High School together in May 1969, as did his wife Marcia Jones Burnham. Coincident­ally, the Burnhams were married the same day my wife and I tied the knot, something none of us knew until just recently.

Ours was a friendship in the making. I’d lost track of Steve, and most of my classmates, right after high school. We met again several years ago during a community briefing on plans for the S-curve and attendant street improvemen­ts. We had coffee after that, then lunch, and then began having lunch together on Fridays whenever possible.

I looked forward to those lunches for three reasons. I could enjoy my gustatory favorites without reproach — Rocky Mountain oysters or chicken fried steak, depending on the venue — Steve was an excellent judge of good beer, and I could count on him as a sounding board and sometimes foil for some of my more ridiculous theories about the human condition.

We were as unlikely a pair as one could imagine. He was slender, understate­d, technicall­y savvy and widely traveled; I’m oversized (to put it mildly,) outspoken, am challenged trying to work my Apple watch, and have rarely ventured outside of Colorado.

Over the past year I’d followed his battle with colon cancer, then heard the stories of post-surgery mishaps and illnesses. And when we last had lunch in late October, he was undergoing a moderate version of chemothera­py to reduce the chances of a relapse. He said he felt good, if a little weak, but with adequate rest he could put in a fulfilling day puttering around the house and building a new woodworkin­g bench.

That was the last time I saw him.

Steve’s death, while unexpected and rather sudden, isn’t all that uncommon. We baby boomers are becoming fewer as we “age out.” Not that the Class of ’69 hasn’t lost several along the way; an auto accident here, a plane crash there, a cancer too long undetected all have felled a few of my classmates in their prime.

This is different. This cannot be tossed off as cruel fate; humans must die, and now it is coming to our turn. We have lived to the outer edge of the worldwide expected life span, and are rapidly approachin­g the more generous average terminus of life in the United States. This is us; we are in our “golden years,” with one last chance to check things off of our bucket lists, one last hurrah before the obscurity of truly old age.

Steve was doing his utmost to stave off that obscurity. Having already served numerous years on the city’s Planning and Zoning commission and Citizen Advisory Board, he’d been named to City Council. He had detailed plans for incorporat­ing his table saw in the new workbench he was building, and promised he’d call on me if he needed someone to hold the other end of a board (also joking that I’d probably need a beer in the other hand for “balance.”) He was a stalwart supporter of Special Olympics, being personally involved in their organizati­on and execution.

When I first heard he’d had another bad spell, I was confident the gifted medicos on the Front Range would pull him through once again.

And then I heard that they had not. In the time it takes for a text message to land in a smart phone, he was gone from my life.

During the memorial service on Friday, I was reminded of John Donne’s “Meditation­s upon Emergent Occasions,” in which he meditates that “no man is an island,” that when an infant is baptized, we all are washed again in the waters of the River Jordan; that when a clod of earth breaks off into the sea, Europe is the lesser for it. And thus, Donne’s most-quoted sentence: “(A)ny man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Steve Burnham was involved in mankind, and our lives are lesser for his loss. I could not sit in the pews on Friday and not hear that bell toll.

This cannot be tossed off as cruel fate; humans must die, and now it is coming to our turn.

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