Like it or not, we are, all of us, always in the company of the dying because we’re all headed there sooner or later. If we’re fortunate, our lives fill up the space and time between us and death with delightful meaning and reassuring connections. But that moment will come, for each of us, when the living is thrown into stark counterpoint to the dying.
For me that moment came when my father died. I’d been to funerals, even lost a friend or two, but somehow those didn’t drag life into the presence of death, didn’t undeniably illuminate that intimate tango in a way that held my gaze, would not let me look away. I had the privilege of sitting with my dad for the last two weeks of his life, but that feeling of privilege came later, after the late nights by his bedside, after he finally asked for an exit, after driving around Jackson Mississippi just before sunrise hoping I wouldn’t get stopped when I realized I had several empty ampules of morphine in my shirt pocket… “Honest, Officer…”
I’m still, over a decade later, working out what it meant to me to be by his side then, in the on-going presence of a transition from living to dying to dead. At the time it was wrenching, ameliorated only by a sense of doing what I was meant to do in that moment. What I didn’t see then, but feel now was that it was somehow a fulfillment of our relationship. Though I don’t think it was his intent, in a way, all his raising of me was a preparation to be in that moment, to be able to find it full of grace and love and meaning, beneath and above, indeed all around any of the temporary pains of the situation for both him and me.
I can be something of a slow learner (hoping the lessons are learned well), and it wasn’t until my Mother died seven years later that I began really to experience death as a transition rather than an end, as a kind of trajectory from one place, one state of being to another. I’m not trying to make a case for an after-life here (though, full disclosure, I do believe in an afterlife without being anywhere close to articulating what it is). Death, for me, isn’t about after life but rather life transforming to something less tangible, less well understood, but also still undeniably real, enduring, and evolving. Death isn’t so much life’s antonym as it is one of life’s markers like a heart beat or birthing cry. We can’t always see the life beyond that particular marker but if we can avoid being blinded by the real losses that circle around death, we can look for and find the meaning, the attachment, the love, and yes, the life that remains, endures and continues to reveal itself over time as only life can do.
I do miss my parents, miss the weekly phone calls, the peanut butter cookies packed in stale popcorn at Christmas, even the dreaded command appearances at family reunions. I miss it all, but increasingly more than the missing is the experience of my parents still active in my life. Who I am at work, how I behave with strangers, what I do in times of joy and stress, it’s all saturated with who my Mom and Dad were. More surprising, though, is how my appreciation, understanding, and enjoyment of Mom and Dad continues to grow and change as they come along with me to this day as I make my way through my own life.
There is no question that I’d give almost anything to have an Easter Sunday dinner with Mom and Dad and my sweet wife around the table chattering about this or that, eating bread and strawberries soaked in whole milk for dessert. I’d give almost anything, except, perhaps for this sure knowledge that while I may not be able to arrange that dinner, no matter what I do, Mom and Dad are still with me. Their deaths were not the absolute end it felt to be in the moment. Yes, some things ended, but more than an end there was a transformation and an opening of a different kind of connection. This connection is untroubled by the logistics of day to day living. It is a connection with a purer signal, with less static and more (or perhaps just different) information, meaning, and attachment than was possible in that other condition, that state we call life.
I haven’t become some kind of angel of death, seeking out its presence, serving as its hand maiden. I will not welcome it. I like this life I have too much. But I don’t flee from it either, do anything to hold it off, keep it away. I am more ready for it, for myself and my loved ones, ready to hear its rustlings in the breezes of our daily lives, ready to accept if not welcome that transition to that next stage of our relationships.