When my grandmother died, the newspaper where I worked published a loving editorial tribute I wrote. When my friend Jan died, I wrote and offered a elegiac reflection to the church packed with mourners. When my mother died 11 years ago, I wrote the obituary for her hometown newspaper. When my father died last week, just a few weeks short of his 90th birthday, that’s all there was to write as well, a conclusion that makes me almost as sad as his passing.
My brother says it shouldn’t (carrying on a long family tradition of telling me how I should -- or should not -- feel about all manner of things -- a practice I had hoped might be put to rest with our dad). He says I’ve already written plenty about Dad, our relationship, the struggle to get him to let us help care for him, and even the triumph of showing a man who may have believed himself unlovable that despite his human frailties, he was in fact deeply loved. My brother suggests all that’s needed now is a coda: the inevitable conclusion which is, of course, Dad’s death and, if I think it’s necessary, that it was peaceful.
“It was still Death!” I scream back at him, silently. (When my emotions are raw like this, I regress to my factory setting, which is anger; I don’t trust myself to speak. Then there’s this: I don’t know how Dad’s loss will impact my brother’s and my relationship and now is not the time to work on it.) Anyway, yes, that part about Dad’s death being peaceful is necessary. It tells me he finally made peace with his life, both the parts that fueled his fiercest pride and those that fostered his deepest shame. It lets me think that he made peace with his death, too, which, as one of my friends noted about *her* father’s recent death, is a gift -- a final parental instruction or admonition: Be not afraid.
A new book recently highlighted in [The New Old Age], “[At The End of Life: Stories About How We Die]” contains, according to Paula Span, “some truly gripping narratives that illuminate a hard truth about death in our culture: it is always so complicated, so much thornier than we think. A good death appears to require as much effort and commitment, from many parties, as a good life. And it happens much less often.”
So we were, my family and I, in fact blessed. Everything we tried actually worked -- eventually. In his last two years, Dad was comfortable, safe, clean, well and tenderly cared-for, and visited by one or more of his four adult children every day. Finally, his extraordinary will, which kept him alive far longer than the physicians assessing his heart and lung disease predicted -- had him up and dressed, shaved and ready to see his son in fact the day he died -- ultimately surrendered without a fight, but only in exhaustion. He was literally worn out. I couldn’t help but think of the times he chided my mother or me when we said we were tired, or needed a nap. “You can sleep all you want when you’re dead!” he would say. In our last conversation, as he explained to me why he -- an otherwise rabid sports fan -- wasn’t following my Texas Rangers this spring, he said, “I don’t know, Annie, I’m just so tired.” I almost said it, “You can sleep all you want when you’re dead,” but caught myself. I just murmured “I know, I know.” Because I knew, I knew: he was ready to sleep.
Our relationship was rocky; his life was hard; and the latter is probably responsible for the former in ways I am only now beginning to unravel and understand despite years -- decades -- of trying to be “good enough” that he wouldn’t be angry and more years -- more decades -- of therapy to salve that anger’s scars. I am touched by the opportunities he provided me that he never had, opportunities he swore he never wanted precisely because, I realize only now, he didn’t dare as the son of a single mother widowed when he was just 10. I am saddened by the constraints of his father’s larger-than-life legacy and grateful limits like that were never imposed on me. I will wonder forever what might have been if I known as a child (but no child would) to translate all his admonitions -- about respect, authority, responsibility, duty, honor, discipline, reputation -- into the language of parental love I longed to hear. I think now he believed he was teaching us how to earn -- or deserve -- lives easier than his because he loved us (of course he did) and because he wanted nothing but the best for us, albeit *his* best.
As I wrote in Dad’s obituary, the focus of his life was his commitment to providing quality medical care to the people of his home town. It was an admirable life of service and success and a very real and meaningful contribution. He spent 29 years in practice as a general surgeon. And then -- and this is instructive -- he spent *another 29 years *in retirement.
It’s one thing to study the demographics: the increasing number of people who will be living into their eighth and ninth decades; and the newly defined developmental stage of life when you’re done (say, with career or family) but not yet old. There are all kinds of economic, political, policy, and social ramifications. It’s quite another thing, though, to examine a single life, a loved one’s life, and measure both the time spent doing what he loved,and the time spent being who he wanted to be, against the being-and-time (to borrow from Heidegger) he had these last three decades. He seemed to treat it as if it were a leftover, a poor, unsavory, and not very nutritional substitute for the main course he’d once enjoyed. I’ve been writing about this post-60 period as if it is new “found” time for our generation, neglecting to notice my dad had it, too. And couldn’t enjoy it. It is sobering enough to lose the last parent; that he to some extent “lost” the last third of his life is sadder still, and disturbing. What will I -- what will we -- do differently? Is this, in fact, Dad’s final admonition?
comments powered by Disqus