“Bigger than Life”
To say Bob Patterson was a tall man is a bit like saying the Grand Canyon is a wide ditch – technically true, but something of an understatement. Bob was tall, the seven-foot tall kind of big! “Bigger than life!” is a cliché, but in public people would stare, skeptical as to how a mere mortal could reach such Goliath-like proportions. Strangers with squinted, almost unbelieving eyes, would ask, “How tall are you?” And yes, he did play basketball. He played at Ole Miss where he met his wife, Trisha.
In 1986, during the height of the Texas recession, and against my better advice, he and Trisha quit their good jobs with a major oil company to start their own computer software company. Growing eventually to 300 employees in four cities, they later sold off some of their company and built their dream home on a lake outside of beautiful Knoxville, Tennessee. It was designed with Bob in mind – eight-foot doors, high countertops, tall toilets, and an elevator to accommodate an aging mother and others with physical handicaps. Who would have known it would be Bob who would eventually need the elevator?
After 18 months of construction and shortly after they moved into their new home, Bob called me on our old-fashioned house phone, the kind that connected to a wall. It was an early Friday evening and I wasn’t home yet so my daughter relayed the message that he wanted me to call him. Like many, by Friday evening my brain and body wants little to do but crash and relax and so assuming there was nothing urgent I opted to return the call the next morning. Surely Bob would appreciate the courtesy.
That morning I was sitting at our kitchen counter eating a bagel and reading the paper when Bob beat me to the phone punch. Bob had a phone etiquette that I considered formal, perhaps it was his common first and last name, but the conversation always started, “Hey Stan. This is Bob Patterson.” There was always a slight pause between Bob and Patterson with the syllabic emphasis always on Patterson. Then, after an additional pause, as though the listener needed a moment to recollect just which Bob Patterson was calling, he would continue by saying, “I’m calling because . . . “ Bob was purpose-driven in his phone manners even before the concept became popular.
When I was hung up I was left reeling, speechless and embarrassed that I hadn’t returned his call earlier. I walked back to our bedroom in a daze and blurted out to Sandi, “You’re not going to believe this!”
Please, make sure there’s lots of laughter!
Later I reflected on an earlier conversation that I’d oddly remembered, one fifteen or so years earlier when I was his pastor. For one reason or another the subject of funerals came up and Bob pointedly requested that at his funeral he wanted me to ensure that there would be lots of laughter. That fit his personality for Bob loved a good laugh and was often quick with funny comment but it surprised me a bit for people at that age don’t usually spend much time thinking about their funerals. But as I chased the conversation tail he pointed out to me something that I didn’t know – extremely tall men have a shorter life expectancy. Statistically speaking extremely tall men tend to die younger than their counterparts.
That conversation returned to my brain as Bob was explaining that he’d recently been having some stomach problems and a visit to the emergency room was immediately followed by visits to a specialist and within 24 hours he had the diagnosis of a rare and incurable cancer. With his college background in math, and his business being computers, he researched the disease, crunched the numbers and announced to me that morning that he would likely die the first week in August of 2007 – just slightly more than six months hence. Bob was calling a list of friends just letting them know the news. No emotion, no other purpose in calling, he just thought I might want to know.
As soon as I could I cleared my calendar and made a quick trip to Knoxville and then, as fate would have it, we moved to Knoxville a few months later. In fact we ended up living in a house just a few miles from their home. Every morning, on my way into the base I would cross a short bridge and to my right, perhaps a quarter mile in the distance, I could see the back of his house which was positioned on a bend in Tellico Lake. Crossing that bridge would often prompt me to offer up prayers for him and often, on my return I would stop by for a few minutes to visit with Bob or, more commonly, with his mother. Sitting on the back deck, overlooking the beautiful lake, I became a listening ear, and sometimes a praying voice with her. Mothers should not have to bury children.
The “Death Day’
When dealing with cancer I have found there is often a point in the treatment process, a day when the patient accepts the inevitable and make appointments with the funeral home, the cemetery and, in Bob’s case their lawyer. Getting your death day on your calendar has a way of focusing one’s attention and so Bob used that time to rest, read, reflect, pray and take care of practical matters. He also spent time speaking in churches and other groups. His was a powerful message. People listen to man with a death date, especially one with faith-filled confidence. He had no children of his own, but he had numerous nephews and nieces and to them he was the big hearted, Uncle Bob, the one with jet skis, funny teases and a generous heart.
In those last months of Bob’s life I was reminded of Ecclesiastes 7:2, “death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart.” Bob did just that and in an amazing way fear gave way to faith. I remember sitting on his boat deck, overlooking the lake. Trisha had gone somewhere for a short time and Bob and I sat there staring into the mesmerizing chop of the summer water, our thoughts ignoring the carefree boaters who were enjoying the afternoon. After a few moments of silent staring, I looked up asked Bob if he was scared. I expected him to confess to some fear. That’s pretty natural. I think I would.
He paused and then said something to the effect, “No. Not really. I believe I’m going to heaven.”
He did admit to some anxiety over the actual death process, which sometimes involves pain and certainly a loss of mobility and dignity. But he was sincere in his confidence, in his faith. That lakeside confession wasn’t born out of some level of brash expectation, but rather it was a sincere faith, a humble confession.
The Obvious Truth
That July 4th Bob gathered his whole extended family to his home for one last celebration which included lots of food, fireworks and, a family meeting in which Bob, in keeping with his business-like manner, had prepared a PowerPoint presentation of just why his pending death meant salvation for him and thus they should not sorrow. Along with a few other friends, Sandi and I were invited to join them. As it turns out, it was one of the most interesting, almost unbelievable meetings I’ve ever sat in. It was nearly surrealistic – surrealistic in a good sense! And it was quintessential Bob for as the nearly 30 or so of us gathered around the state-of-the-art conference room he had designed for his company, Bob opened with a great line, “How many in here have a terminal disease?” There was silence and Bob’s own hand was the only one that went up. Then he pointed out the obvious truth that all of us are terminal; we will each eventually die.
From there he launched into twenty-five or so slides sharing the essence of the gospel. Christ died – that’s history. Christ died for us – that’s salvation! In business like manner he described his faith journey as though he were presenting a sales proposal for a new software product. When he finished there was silence. Almost abject silence. Then there were a few sniffles, tissues were pulled from a few cardboard boxes and a few more were blowing their noses. No one spoke and finally Bob interrupted his own silence with a look of confusion. Why the tears? His mother then spoke up as just a mother could and in an almost scolding manner she said, “Bobby, I love you and I don’t want you to die!” The meeting ended perfectly – in true business fashion everyone got what they wanted! Bob shared the riches of Christ with his family and his family shared how Bob had enriched their lives
Don’t be afraid; it’s not the end
Bob died a month later, the first week of August. Through a prerecorded video he preached his own funeral message – a good one I might add. A handful of others shared some poignant eulogies. He was then laid to rest in a big casket and his nieces sang, “Jesus is coming Again.” Later, those same nieces, the very ones he loved to tease, broke out in an a cappella version of “Rocky Top Tennessee” the fight song for the University of Tennessee. Even an Ole Miss basketball player would have found that funny!
Stan Giles is a native Texan who moved here with the Air Force six years ago. He is a chaplain in the Air Force and a former pastor who believes that everyone has a story worth listening to. His wife Sandi is a 5th grade teacher and he has two young adult children, Scott and Shannon.