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  • Dr. Ted Klontz

Getting To Know Fred-Mo

One warm humid fall day, I was walking down 17th Avenue in Nashville, Tennessee, an area known as “Music Row.”  I heard a car’s tires squealing behind me and as I turned around, two men jumped me from behind and knocked me to the ground.  They put their knees in the small of my back, wrenched my arms behind my back, handcuffed me, pulled me upright, put a bag over my head, and threw me into the back of a van.  They had not said a thing.  Neither had I. 


We peeled out and soon arrived at a building.  Strangely, I knew which building it was without being able to see a thing.  I could tell by the number of steps up and into the building.  The sound the doors made as they opened and closed.  The creaking of the wooden floors.  The “old wood” smell that permeated the air.  They carried me through the building and then down some stairs.  Obviously, by the musty smell, it was a little used basement area.   They roughly threw me into a chair, untied my arms and uncuffed my hands.


They slammed my hands onto the table and click, click.  Cuffs that were somehow built into the table now controlled both my hands.  Then they each took a leg and cuffed me at the ankles. I couldn’t move.


Next, they roughly whipped the bag off my head, and I was greeted by two of the brightest spotlights imaginable.  Closing my eyes gave me no relief.  I could feel the heat coming off them.  The whole thing reminded me of films I had seen where someone was being tortuously interrogated. 


Renditioned is another word I had come to know.  It’s what happened if you were captured by the United States in the post 9-11 era if they thought you were a terrorist.  Kidnapped, taken to a place of interrogation.  I felt like an inquisition was about to take place.    


I couldn’t see much because of the spotlights blazing in my face, but I did see two male silhouettes.  I guessed that they were the ones who had kidnapped me.  They each appeared to have large photo album type books before them and they began, what turned out to be, the mental assault.    


They said, “Someday life as you have known it will be over.  You won’t be getting any better. What you have been going through over the last few weeks…this is your future.  There will no longer be a place for you in the lives of people that you think care about you.” They verbally painted my future.  Sad pictures.  Alone, used up, not belonging anywhere to anyone.  They were showing me pictures of my moment of death. 


I argued with them.  I told them they were wrong.  They screamed at me.  I screamed back.  I had spent a lifetime allowing the thought that people who said they cared about me and loved me, actually did.  That they would be there.  Always.  No matter what.  I had finally reached a point where I had allowed myself to believe that and here were two men I didn’t know trying to rip that belief from me. 


They had a rebuttal statement for every point I tried to make.  I listed the people that I knew loved me.  They would always say in some form, “There will come a time when they don’t. They won’t be able to. There will come a time when you will be all alone.”  This kind of back and forth went on for what seemed like hours.  I kept resisting what they were saying, they kept persisting. 


Over and over and over again, they repeated their messaging.  They were relentless.  I was too.  I kept fighting them with what I believed.  That people, some people, loved me and always would, to the very end. 


This encounter went on for what seemed like hours.   They were relentless.  I was exhausted.  Felt tormented.  They broke me.  It eventually ended with my saying, “I surrender.”  I wasn’t just saying that.  I felt that.  “You are right.  I will be all alone at the very end.” That seemed to satisfy them.  Somehow, I knew they were right. 


I didn’t quite know what that meant but my delusion about people being able to be with me at the very end of my life, was what I wanted to believe, had been told I could believe, was just that.  A delusion.  The spotlights immediately went out.    Like magic, the cuffs from my hands and feet automatically opened up.  “Why did you do this to me”?, I asked.  “Why would you be so cruel?  Ripping away my belief system.”    


“We were just trying to let you know now, so when it happens you won’ be so frightened or devastated.  We want you to do something about that inevitability, now.  While you can. While you have time.  We want you to make peace with your own mortality. Your own death. Now.”  I saw that as a really good friend might, they were just trying to tell me to get ready.   Somehow, I knew their message was true.  I knew that these two ‘visitors’ had been sent as messengers, with the intent of helping me. 


This experience was like a nightmare.  It took place in that space between sleep and full consciousness.  I had tried to stop the dream several times and couldn’t.  In that sense I was trapped.  The moment I surrendered to their “wisdom,” I woke up.


As you may have gathered by now, this incident wasn’t the kind that would have ended up in a police report.  Or a 911 call.  It happened during, what I call a “day-mare.” It happened in the hours before I was hospitalized one again, this time with life-threatening e-coli.  One of those moments when the Dr. said, “We’re going to throw everything we have at this, and hope for the best.”


I had no idea what I was supposed to do with this “revelation.”  But I did know that something had to change.  I was missing something.  I didn’t know what or where to look. 


I intuitively knew what it wasn’t.  I didn’t need therapy.  Or intellectualization.  Or reading about other people’s beliefs or revelations.  I didn’t know what it was or where to find it or if it was something I could possibly find.  I knew it wasn’t “out there.” I knew it was inside of me.  When I explained the whole thing to my friends, they had no answers for me either. 


Gradually it came to me that at the end, the very end of my life, my loved ones, no matter how much they loved me couldn’t go with me.   There will be a moment  where I will have to turn my back on them  and walk on without them.  The question was, could I gently turn away?  Take my vulnerable, innocent childlike self in one hand and death in the other and we all go peacefully into that place beyond?  I wanted to be able to do that.  It was clear I wasn’t there yet.  That’s what the dream was all about.    


Eventually it became clear that I needed to deepen my relationship with my innocent, childlike self, and death.  For the last fifteen years or so, I have been engaged in an ongoing conversation with my mortality.  Not daily, but when “it” (mortality) comes knocking at my door.  Or when I see it knocking on or breaking down the door of someone I hear about, know, am close to, love.  It always has something to remind me of.  Teach me.  Challenge me with.


You might say, “What a downer, why go there?”  If you have ever walked out of a doctor’s office with a deep sigh of relief when you got the “no problem” message from a test result, or an “in remission” report, or survived a near-miss accident, and you can remember how, for at least a few moments, the sky is bluer, bird sounds sweeter, the air softer, the sun brighter, and that wave of deep appreciation for life itself washes over you…that has been my experience of going there.  A deeper appreciation for life as it is a reward.  Just as important, I have found myself being able to be with others who are having mortality experiences in a far less clumsy way.      


I originally started this diary-entry-like  “dialog” with my mortality with the stated desire to know it better, so that I wouldn’t be so scared when it comes to get me.  I wanted to make peace with him, I told him.  The “conversations” over the last dozen years or so have been amazing.  Magical even.  Since then, when I have had a close encounter with death, when I hear of someone’s deadly diagnosis or am touched by a death, I have my own private conversation with my mortality.   


My initial image of death as I began dialoging with it was the stereotypical “Grim Reaper.”  Black robe, scythe, bony features-you know the image.  That image has morphed over the years and is now much more like a character in bib overalls, work boots and a ball cap.  I call him “Fred Mo” these days.  Fred, for Fred Rogers, Mo, for mortality.  Will it help me when my time comes?  I have no idea.  I know it is helping me now.  Get ready.  Do the right things now.  With others.  For others.  With myself. 


In some conversations with others over the subsequent years, they have been attracted to the idea of making peace with their mortality.  Over the last years we’ve gathered together from time to time to continue to strive to make peace with our own individual mortality.  The youngest has been 22, the oldest 88.  


Why am I writing about this now?  Lately, Fred-Mo has been creating chaos in my neighborhood.  Fifteen times during the last twelve weeks, Fred-Mo has visited me through others.    Sudden, shocking, unexpected deaths; dire, shocking, uncurable deadly medical diagnosis; scary medical procedures; ravages of age; etc.  Of people I know.  People I am close to.  Some of them, very close.  Some of them very, very, close.


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