The scene could have been from a movie. My father had come home from the hospital to die. My brothers and sisters, all nine of them, had traveled from as far away as New York and Wisconsin. We were all camped out at my parents’ small house, taking turns in the back bedroom, talking to Dad as he lay with his eyes closed, holding his hand, curling up next to him on Mom’s half of the big bed. Hospice of Cincinnati nurses gave him—and us—round-the-clock care.
Now my family is like any collection of people. We have our quirks, and we don’t always agree about things. But for those last five days, as we lived with our dying father, grief stripped us of our masks, rendered irrelevant our political, social, cultural—even religious—differences. We entered into a deeply intimate experience of our common and precious humanity.
During Dad’s second night at home, I was in the living room when the Hospice nurse sent word. Dad was awake and he wanted to see us.
I hurried down the hallway. In the softly lit room, Dad’s breathing was labored. It seemed clear that he wanted to say something. He worked his mouth several times, but he was too weak to make the sound come out.
My heart broke as he sagged against the bed. Minutes passed, with no sound in the room but the steady whirring of the oxygen machine. Suddenly, my oldest brother Paul leaned close.
“Dad,” he cried, “is there anything you want us to do for you?”
Dad turned his eyes to Paul, and then to all of us. His voice came out, raspy but audible. “Just keep doing what you’re doing.”
I thought he meant we should continue to keep him company. From a choked throat, I promised I would.
Did I misinterpret Dad? I don’t know, but as our voices died down, he spoke again, slowly, clearly, “Just—love—each—other.” Then, exhausted, he sank back against the pillow.
Just love each other.
My mind raced. Dad knew that we did love each other; we had no familial rifts to patch up, no grudges to let go of. We were a close family; he couldn’t be worried that we’d drift apart.
It came to me then that, from his deathbed, Dad was stating his clearest, most distilled truth. It was fine to work hard for what we believed in—but, success or failure, in the end, all falls away. And when the trappings of life dissolve, what’s left is love, the dark rich road to the fullness we all seek.
So this is what I believe: The most important thing to do is to love each other. We can and will have our differences; and that’s all right. But at least once in a while, we ought to take off our masks and be deeply, honestly human with each other. Love is all we really have—fortunately, it’s all that matters.