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I got the phone call this evening…

April 24, 2016


It is 3:44 p.m. Eastern Standard Time and I am waiting for a phone call.

It’s not a call I want to hear but I know I will receive it soon.  Mark Kliewer will phone me as soon as it happens.

Mark is at a hospice in Simpsonville, South Carolina, along with his brother James and sister Dianne, at the bedside of their 80 year old father, Orlan.  The Kliewers (pronounced “cleaver”) are dear, dear people to me, and Mark has promised me that he will keep me informed, because I want to know and help in any way possible.  What a great family! Mark was a college classmate of mine, one of the best defensive basketball players on the court, yet a quiet fellow all around.  Mark is 6 foot 8 inches tall.  I am 5 foot 10.  You can see why I say I literally look up to him.

James is his younger brother, a steady and compassionate man who was a ready help to me when I was a youth pastor in their hometown of Hollister, California in the early 1980s.  Dianne was a gentle leader in my youth group, sensitive to the needs of others and open to God’s leading in her life.

Martha and Orlan -I will always know them as Mr. and Mrs. Kliewer – were like parents to me.  They took me in as one of the family as I learned the ropes of the youth pastorate, stumbling and bumbling as I went along.  Many a night I would sit and discuss my failures and frustrations, with Mr. Kliewer slowly nodding his head and Mrs. Kliewer sliding another cup of coffee over to me.  Mr. Kliewer was a 6 foot 6 inch gentle giant who would nod and fold his arms while listening to me, always giving me as much time as I needed.  He was not a verbose man, but his measured words and kindred spirit were a comfort in the most troubling times. I took in their friendship and love and always enjoyed every single visit to their beloved home.   I took on a second job as a cartoonist for the local newspaper and used Mr. Kliewer as the model for the main character: Mr. O.  I think the strip ran for about two years in the Hollister Free Lance.  We had a great time with it, as Mr. Kliewer would give me new inspiration  for the strip virtually every time I met up with him.

And then there were the times we would hold an impromptu Taco Party at their household – I can still remember the mounds of cheese and the smell of broiling meat as over a dozen teens were gorging their faces around the Kliewer table and back porch.   I don’t even have time to mention the progressive dinners, the Bible studies, the Christmas parties, the many times they lent me their station wagon in order to take children to Pinnacles Caves or San Benito County Fair or summer camp in Lucerne, California…

They prayed with me.  They laughed with me.  They teased me and encouraged me and taught me.

This news is especially hard.

Orlan is literally on his deathbed, dying from a long and brutal battle with Parkinson’s Disease. The hospital had told the family that there was nothing else they could do.  His wife Martha has been by his bedside around the clock all week.

I received the message from Dianne on Thursday and phoned her as soon as school was out.  “Dad has less than a week to live.  I thought you needed to know.”

I received permission from the school to take Friday off, drive to Simpsonville and meet with the family.  And good ol’ Mr. O.

The drive was just short of four hours.  I arrived in the hospice room around 8: 45 in the morning under a damp and cloudy sky.  The compassionate staff gently directed me to Room 128 and I walked down the clean, carpeted hallways.  I stepped into the silent room, interrupted only by labored breathing.  Mrs. Kliewer sat in a corner of the darkened room, looking out a window.

“Hi Mrs. Kliewer.” I moved forward and she looked up, but she didn’t recognize me.  It’s been over thirty years.  “I’m Brad Zockoll. From Knoxville, Tennessee. I came here to see you and Mr. Kliewer.”

She got up and hugged me, and I remembered how small she was, especially compared to her husband.  She turned and motioned toward him and I looked at him for the first time.  He was emaciated – he couldn’t be more that one hundred pounds now.  His eyes were wide and staring at the ceiling.  He breathed loudly through his mouth.

“Orlan,” called Mrs. Kliewer, “Brad Zockoll came to see you.”  He gave no response. James, Dianne and Mark came within the hour.  He gave spurts of recognition upon seeing them as they moved close to his eyes, but his response was mainly in barely audible gasps.  Dianne swabbed his mouth – it had become dry.  His eyes darted once or twice, but never blinked.

I stepped out for a few minutes and came back to see James sitting next to his dad, reading the Psalms while gently rubbing his shoulder.  The children set up a phone with some quiet Christian music playing next to his ear. They leaned over, talked lovingly to him while all affectionately patting and touching him.

I swallowed hard.  This man was once a giant.  He was a shell.  I tried hard to remember him and all of the wonderful memories he created for all of us.

Mr. Kliewer you were a strong man in more ways than one.  You led as a Christian father should.  You guided in a manner worthy of any of Jesus’ apostles.  You worked an honorable job as an officer at a bank and were respected not only by your peers but also in your neighborhood, your church and your  community…  

Hang on.  The phone is ringing right now.  


It is 5:25 p.m. I just received the call.

It was Mark.

“Dad passed away at 5:15.  We were all around him at his bedside.”

“Was it hard?  Did he struggle?”

“No,” Mark said, “It was peaceful.  He just gave a breath … and then stopped.”

And Mr. Kliewer stepped into the arms of Jesus.

Oh, thank God he is in Heaven!  “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead…so in Christ all will be made alive.”  Mr. Kliewer right now is more alive than he has ever been.

So long, Mr. O, my dear friend. I’ll be coming along some time, not sure when.  You have a great time until we get there.

And thank you, Jesus.


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