This I Believe
My father is dying… not today … maybe not for a few months. But the inevitable is approaching and each of us in my family is dealing with it in our own unique way. Mostly we sit with him and talk about dribble, which is what most people do when someone is dying among them. Avoiding the difficult language of intimacy that most of the human race spends a whole lifetime avoiding with lovers, family and friends.
And I, who have studied the subject of death and dying since my freshman year of nursing school, at the early teachings by Kubler Ross…. I who have sat long wonderful and difficult hours in a Buddhist training program leaning ways to assist the dying through the process of last breaths…..I who have sat with many families and the dying assisting them with the passage and ways to share language…. I now sit uncomfortably with my father, uncomfortable at broaching the subject because of the fear I perceive in my father’s baby blue eyes.
I started composing this on a recent glorious day at my childhood summer home on the beach, sun glaring off the clear seas, momentarily blinded by the water and light, as I crashed my kayak against huge incoming waves. I experienced a moment that helped me believe that beyond all the hurt and pain of growing up with my father, I believe that he always loved us. Later when I told him of my escapade on the water, I believe he missed that he could not be sitting in his beach chair taking pride in my accomplishment on the sea.
When I was a little girl, my father always took the first two weeks of July off to vacation at our summer home on Old Orchard Beach to be a part of the rest of his family in a way we rarely saw him, relaxed, smiling and happy. I believe those were some of his most peaceful times.
I remember waking under the weight of multiple old, musty smelling blankets to the sunlight flickering through the dark green shades. I would crawl out from under the warmth into the cold of the early June morning, following the sounds of my mother’s and father’s voices, muffled as they drank their first cup of coffee together, waiting for his vacation to begin.
I grew up with an older brother and younger sister. We would eat our ritual chocolate donuts and warm coffee milk in the cold of the cottage in our favorite bathing suits and sweat shirts and wait anxiously for them on the sun warmed screened front porch, watching the waves creep toward or away from the white sandy beach … anticipating our 8 AM release.
Under the watchful eyes of my parents, we would race ahead to the empty beach and lie out our claim to the sand with ancient quilts, thread worn at the edges before heading to test the water with our toes or eyes connected to a seal lazily etching a line through the calm glistening waters.
My father lived for these two weeks, his only vacation, opening the beach on the deserted, freshly groomed sands. If we were lucky, we would catch the two quarter horses pulling the huge sand rake along the edge of the shoreline of the most recent high tide, gathering the seaweed and other ocean treasures, into huge piles, later to be loaded onto truck beds. He would settle into his beach chair, sun tan lotion applied and whistle along blissfully for hours to classical music on MPBN. My father, raised in poverty in NYC by immigrant parents, became famous with certain program hosts, for being able to identify any classical music piece by the first three notes or bars, winning free tickets to live programs at our local college or auditorium. My father’s childhood story was that all his brothers and sisters had a time of choice to play a musical instrument. Being the spoiled youngest of 8 children, his request for a piano for their two bedroom tenement was denied but my grandfather thought that his response with a harmonica was reasonable. I believe that out of all my grandfather’s 8 children, had my father had been given the opportunity to play piano; he might have been the most successful, as his ear for music remains exquisite at 82.
We all believe, though unspoken, that this summer will probably be my father’s last summer. We packed up the hospital bed, the walker and wheel chair and headed for the warmth of the summer sun after a long hard winter in Maine. “One more summer” a phrase repeated silently in all our hearts. I believe that our summer street will never be the same once my father is gone. Generations of people have passed by under his watchful eyes, he sitting witness to their joy and anticipation of those same summer vacations. The Old Orchard police will no longer get the calls at midnight from “that man” unable to tolerate the noise of the revelers on “His” street. My father believed he was in charge of keeping the neighborhood free of intrusion on our space. I believe my father, the icon on that ocean faded white porch will be missed, mostly by those who would stop and catch up on the winter’s events. I believe he will be missed by all those strangers who have become accustomed to that white haired gentleman smiling a greeting of welcome every year as they passed under his vigilant eyes.
I believe with great sadness that we may have to sell that home, to pay for his care, his dying wish to be home. My children and my sibling’s children were raised on these same sands that we all shared innocent summers of joy and exploration. I believe we will all grieve in our own ways the loss of our father and the youth he provided all of us on those ocean sands.
I understand there is tremendous suffering when you are dying, for some ….physical, for all …. emotional. No matter what your beliefs, the moments before moving into the unknown of death, leave most of us speechless, unsure of the words to share.
I believe there are ways to make the dying process easier but struggle with it with my father. I believe we were all taught language, the use of words in the proper context by our parents and the community we grow up in. However, most of us are not taught how to really talk about the most intimate thoughts and deep feelings that we have. So at death, those of us dying are afraid …. Terrified to speak of it… Those of us witness, terrified to ask those questions.
I believe we can open doors to the most satisfying conversations we may ever have when nearing the end of one’s life. I believe it is never too late.
Every year the Jewish New Year has traditions that offer the opportunity to do grief and love work with your family and community. One is expected to spend hours in reflection over one’s life over the past year, openly affirming love to those you can, and seeking repair of relations that have gone awry asking them personally and through prayer for forgiveness.
I believe one can practice these principles throughout one’s life…on a daily basis.
I believe it is time to share this writing with my father and hope that it will open a door for us that will make sure it is not too late to learn how to talk to each other… truly talk with love in our hearts and words.
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