Monday, September 26, 2011

'Til Death Do Us Part

Moving my father into the room where he will likely take his last breaths has understandably unleashed intense emotions neither of us could avoid. Only a year ago in a similar room one wing over, he and my sisters held vigil for four days as my mother's body slowly shut down, one system by one, and life passed away.

Although my father is fairly strong today, I could not keep the memory away as I arranged his furniture around the hospital bed at the center of the room. Having rarely talked deeply in our lifetimes, sitting together in rest on his sofa facing that bed looming so largely, we finally became equals in our human form.

The world is a fragile place and most of us understand and accept the precarious stance we hold in life. Death may come at any moment, but on a day-to-day basis, we mostly live with our heads held high and our hearts strong in faith that we will live to see another.

No matter how comfortable they make the residents of this community, the truth is always evident that they are on a one-way sequence of moves from their homes to apartments to skilled nursing and ultimately hospice care. All are in various stages of acceptance that their own day-to-days are largely in preparation, anticipating (or avoiding) that final one.

My dad has the book "How We Will Die" on his night stand. He does not remember getting it, only thinking when he found it on the internet that it might be interesting. He reports regularly on his memory loss and muscle fatigue as if they were financial indexes. Nearly deaf and practically blind, missing his lifelong companion, he says he is ready and regretfully predicts the strong beat of his heart will keep him alive at least another year or two.

Raised a silent Quaker and living as an atheist ever since miraculously surviving a ship explosion in World War II, he believes he will simply go to sleep, never to dream and never to awake. He listens to some of us talk about our mother's spirit waiting to embrace his energy, but cannot really wrap his own arms around the concept. He admits to whispering "Goodnight" to her every evening, but never hears her answer back, even in the most quiet and deepest of places.

He is pleased the room is so comfortable for the rest of us, his paintings and sculptures surrounding all. He stares into the silence and thinks of his ashes next to hers.

We are comfortable in the busy little efforts of moving bureaus and arranging mementos on the shelves. Not much needs really to be spoken. Not much ever was. He fails to understand the choices I have made to lead a creative life in trust the universe will provide, but seeing my comfort and renewed strength, he knows there is no time left to worry, argue or judge.

As I walk past the dining room and see other residents docile in their wheel chairs, bibs tucked safely under their chins, patiently waiting for whatever or whoever comes next into their view, I commit to cherish the time I have left. Life is so much more precious for knowing I get to leave, return to Vermont, my business, life and loves.

As a kid, old folks were so foreign I had not the slightest understanding of their language, neither their pain, sorrow, regrets nor their joys, memories or even the lessons they might teach. In youth, there is no sense of age, no knowledge of time passing relentlessly nor wisdom of wings so swift and death so final.

Thirty years separate me from my father so frail, but having lived now nearly sixty, I am keenly aware of how fast the next thirty will fly. No moment can be wasted, no thought too insignificant to ignore. Light shines when the sun rises and I realize there are far fewer for me to see than have gone before.

Still there are mornings I linger much too long staring at the ceiling without clarity for what I want to do, even who I want to be. By night, I can lounge on the sofa with not much more to show for the day and still too tired to do anything by stare at a little mindless television (Netflix reruns).

My thoughts in between often struggle with value, weigh the gold of each moment like so many strands woven into a fabric. Even if not so obvious to others, mine litters magnificently this morning and I am so grateful to awake to another day.
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