I believe we die the way we live. My dad was very deliberate. His last day of consciousness he was directing me to carefully set his white pills on the top of a red paper napkin, because the contrast allowed him to see the pills more clearly and after I finally understood his instructions he said….”There’s a method to my madness”. “Always”, I thought. There has always been a method to your madness. Dad was the most methodical person I knew. So, for the last year before he died, as he began slowing down, losing weight, and saying things like, “I’m not going to golf again next summer”, it was as if we all sort of knew there was a decision being made. And we all just stepped out of his way and let him make it. There was almost no ambivalence. I wonder now, how that must have hurt him, that we weren’t hounding him to see a doctor. That his dying just unfolded the way it did. The way we knew it would someday, as if he intended it.
Everyone knows at least one story of the way in which a person who is dying exerts some control over their dying experience, when they appear to have almost no control over their living. So when he began to complain of some mild physical symptoms, we knew it was serious. We all knew that when dad decided it was time, he wouldn’t waste much of it on illness. That probably best explains why he never quit smoking after 60 years.
My first worries came in the summer. He was irritable. He was critical of my mother and completely intolerant of my uncle, who would visit the house each morning for coffee. It was as if his threshold for tolerance had bottomed out and every last thing that bothered him began to bother him more. Poor mom, she didn’t know what to do. She’d move from feeling angry and defensive to trying to modify things to appease him but nothing worked. And mom, bless her heart, was the last to know that dad was dying, and she would hear nothing of it if we tried to tell her. She hadn’t a clue what all these changes were about. She just knew it was up to her to respond to his struggle in some way.
Their anniversary was Labor Day weekend. It was their 49th. We all agreed to come home and surprise them by taking them out to dinner. We had begun to talk about a 50th anniversary party, but already time seemed brief and we wanted to make sure we had celebrated 49 for its own sake. We’d been to the cabin together only weeks before.
Dad really enjoyed himself. We all sat around the campfire, he lingered there with us. He got mom settled for bed and then he came back. It was like he didn’t really want to leave us.
Everyone was worried. We talked about it. I can’t explain or defend why we didn’t act. We must seem like awful and insensitive children, to have known something and just let it run its course. But to know my dad, you would understand. He was so deliberate. Every move he made was calculated and purposeful. We just didn’t question him or his judgment. That was just the kind of dad he was. I hope we didn’t hurt him.
The next big moment of truth was Halloween weekend. I was home for a visit with the kids. We spent many Halloweens at my parents. One year, when the twins were only one, I was trying to make M&M costumes for them. One red, and one blue. Most daughters would rely on their moms to help with this kind of project, not in my family. Dad was the “can do” guy. He carefully stitched on the letters with invisible thread. They were perfect! And then we carved our pumpkins as always. Only, there was nothing ordinary about that either. The kids would draw a face onto their pumpkin and instead of using a knife to cut out the image, my dad would get out his jigsaw! It seemed sometimes there was nothing he couldn’t do, until this Halloween.
He was tired. He was complaining of some stomach problems. He was quiet. I missed my chance this weekend. My dad would walk in the morning by the lake. Sometimes, I would go with him. I’m not sure what I think would have happened on that walk. I guess I think he would have told me more. I knew that sometimes he didn’t want to tell mom—he was afraid to upset her, to worry her. There had been a few times he had confided in me about other things. But this time I missed it; two mornings, too tired and the last morning, too rainy. It’s really true! All we have is right now. This is all we have, today. I wasted mine sleeping in.
After that, it all began to unfold very quickly. First, there was a trip to the clinic for a check-up, (the first in 20 years), next, a meeting with a pulmonologist a week later. Dad had developed fluid in his lung. When I arrived home for Thanksgiving, I was so glad to see him. He looked relieved. “They took two liters of fluid from my lung”, he said. He felt much better. It could be pneumonia or something else blah, blah, blah or cancer. There it was. The other shoe dropped. I was thankful to have that Thanksgiving with him. He ate well and enjoyed us. It felt good.
From that moment on, the most amazing things began to happen. It was like watching a good film only you’re a part of it and you feel the power of your presence. You know you can really determine whether this will be a great drama or a cheap flick. Because all of a sudden, everything you do takes on this grand importance—you know it’s all that matters and you rise to yourself and you want to be all that you are. You stop holding back. You have nothing to lose and you wonder; Why? Why do I wait? Why didn’t I say these things before? Why can’t I love like this everyday? Why do we let the ordinary keep us captive? But in these moments you are free. In these moments I loved my dad; his strengths and his proud vulnerability, his tenderness that I knew and rarely saw. And he loved me too!
What remains is the simple truth. We decide! We decide each and every moment of our lives. How we will live it. We can walk about invisibly within ourselves, choosing not to commit ourselves to anything or anyone for fear the risk it to great. We can move in our lives with ambivalence believing our moments really belong to someone else; or we can take hold with deliberate determination to be in our moments, to make our moments our own, to create each one from our first breath to our last. I believe we decide.
My dad died two weeks after Thanksgiving. He was at home, surrounded by his family. We held him and said, “It’s OK, you can go, Dad”. And he did.
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