I had the privilege of being present at my father’s death. It was not like I expected.
With illness you see the person — the personality — fade over time, and you come to expect that death will simply be what you call it when there’s nothing left. In light of this it’s easy to imagine that a life can taper down to nothing without any hard edges. But death itself does come down to a single moment. He was breathing, and a moment later he was not.
Having been aware of his prognosis for five years or so, I had already envisioned the moment many times, but I had it all wrong. I expected it to trigger intense grief, hysterics.
Instead, I found I felt intensely happy for him. He had arrived the finish line, and I was there to witness it. It struck me, with all the suddenness of a lightning flash, that he was the only one in the room with no problems at all. Not a trace. All his uncertainties, needs and worries evaporated, while ours still filled the room. I watched intently as he was freed from the enormous weight of simply being alive, an unbelievably heavy thing which I’d somehow lost track of until that moment.
That heaviness is something I had never fully appreciated until I saw somebody being liberated from it. The four of us at his bedside very clearly still carried it. It hung in the room like wet laundry. It was in the hallway too — in the nurse’s faces, in the other patients, in their weary families. And we were grieving for… who? The man with no more troubles.
I do forget it sometimes — that life is a constant, forceful mixture of push and pull, a ceaseless assault of needs and hopes. As pervasive as it is, we appreciate the weight of this tumult about as often as a goldfish thinks about water. Life’s current is heavy and unpredictable and bigger than us, and as long as we’re alive we are at its mercy.
Altogether I do think it’s worthwhile to be in it, for most of us, most of the time. Not that we asked for it, but our fate is to dance with this immense force until it lets us go. So we better learn to dance.
The insight that may very well mark the beginning of my venture into the study of quality of life came from the late author Richard Carlson:
Remind yourself that when you die, your in-basket won’t be empty.
We often live life as if the point of it is to finally untangle the whole mess — to resolve all of our needs, to get to the bottom of all of our problems, to check off all of our to-do items, to relieve all stress, to balance it all out.
It should be plain to anyone that for every concern that is duly handled, another emerges to replace it. Yet we are so prone to looking at our list of worldly concerns as if it is something finite that we can conquer. I suppose it is finite, but do you really want to be done with it?
Our progress in working through the details of life seems to be the one thing that is of absolute importance. This parade of concerns gives us a degree of urgency that never really goes away until the parade stops. C’est la vie. Or is it?
As I very slowly get a little better at managing the “stuff” in life, I am getting markedly better at being okay with everything’s eternally-half-done status. I’m getting better at coexisting peacefully with stuff that needs fixing, problems I don’t know how to handle, opportunities I am mismanaging, and even my anxious moods. Peace with anxiety. Anxiety, with peace. Somehow.
Now and then I can sit right in the middle of all of my uncertain and unfinished business and relax in the knowledge that everything really is in its right place. Strangely, the more I’m okay with everything being not quite okay, the better I am at moving the little things along to a place where they do feel okay. Make sense? Not really? That’s okay.
If peace is only allowed to come when there is nothing buzzing in our minds — no worrisome thoughts or unresolved issues, then it’s going to be a long time before we arrive at it, and from there, there’s nowhere else to go. If we need to put every concern to bed before we can sit and be truly okay with the whole picture, then the world’s football coaches and drill sergeants have been right all along: You can rest when you’re dead.
Life doesn’t stop, until it does. Whatever has happened, if you are alive, you must go do the next thing.
After the doctor’s formal pronouncement, we lingered in the room for a bit. We said our goodbyes and gave our thanks. While there was no conceivable rush to leave, eventually there was nothing else to do.
We put on our coats, left the ward, and took the elevator down to the main floor.
Photo from here .