We are but a moment’s sunlight fading in the grass – Youngbloods
You know it – I know it: the mortal coil has a limited warranty. The tides lap at our sand castles, until finally, they are indistinguishable from the rest of the beach.
When I was six, my brother and I shared a bunkbed in a space that used to be a foyer. Times were tight and the room was our bedroom while the upstairs of our house was repurposed into a rental apartment.
One door off the room connected to the kitchen which once contained a deadbolt lock. Because the lock had been removed, a beam of light broadcast into our bedroom from the hole where the lock had been. After my brother and I were tucked into our beds, we would hear our parents talking at the end of the day, while they sat at the kitchen table — and look at that knothole with its pure circle of light.
One night, I got to thinking that my Mom and Dad might die someday. It was a disturbing thought that got more intense as I listened to their happy voices. Finally, I leapt out of bed and went into the kitchen, eyes full of tears and asked if they truly were going to die.
Of course, they hugged me and reassured me that this was an event in the far future. It probably was also a real buzz-kill for whatever happy conversation they had been having, but they were young and no doubt did not dwell long on the premise.
Years later, my father sat me down at his hospital bedside and told me that it had been a privilege to raise my brother and me, but that he needed to say goodbye. I could barely concentrate on his words through my sobs. In retrospect, I recognized that in both cases, the immediacy of MY feelings had taken front and center. While understandable for a child, something more was required as an adult – that is, the poise needed to listen and properly thank my Dad for his life.
So I pass this on: Honor the efforts of the dying to consolidate their life. My father essentially offered me his death-poem. It is important to have this moment belong to the teller of the tale. My role was to listen, provide reinforcement and comfort. Perhaps even retell some tales. My Dad desired to die in dignity – don’t we all?
An old psychological truism used to be that all learning experiences are painful. If that is true, then Death is a great teacher. Although it sounds oxymoronic, Death allows you to take the long view. That is, you can evaluate your life up to present against the expectation of a finite end. Death shows you what is important — Death keeps you honest.
In The Teachings of Don Juan, A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, Carlos Castenada’s Yaqui shaman, Juan Matus, suggested that he keep Death on his right shoulder – a constant arbiter of decisions and attitude. I believe that is a useful remedy for the world weariness that can sometimes plague old age. When confronted with the inevitable end of days, even the most routine acts can seem exquisite.
Let’s face it, the process of dissembling and decay is elemental and ever present. Even the sounds our words make begin to degrade as they leave our mouths. Entropy happens. Our task is to strive to re-create in the face of continual destruction: evoke memories, build new stories — make myths together. And honor the living who are proceeding toward their farewell.
In a discussion, Henry brought up a term that resonates: a living eulogy. Why wait until a person has passed in order to let them know how they have been instrumental in this world? Express how they have helped others to navigate through difficult paths. In addition, make your own eulogy: what made your life worth living – and what is your unfinished business? Cherish our imperfect performance called life.
It was difficult reading Wally’s piece, even painful in places. I guess because of the topic of death and of our own mortality. Throughout my life, death has always been present- beloved dogs and cats, elderly relatives who in many cases scared the living Bejesus out of me(pardon the pun), but death still seemed far off and impersonal for a long time growing up. I had a goldfish for 12 years in a little bowl that hung on with minimal care or attention but when I found it one morning floating on its side I was devastated. At that point I was old enough to understand, and then began wondering if it was something I had done or didn’t do. My parents tried to ease my conscience and told me that 12 years was way longer than the average goldfish’s life span. And for a while I can remember asking them what was the average life span of my dog, or my parakeet, or the mosquito in my room at night. I think at one point I was so angry at a teacher I asked them what the average life span of a teacher was. That was the last time I asked them about lifespans for some reason.
And as you mature, you deal with the deaths of aunts and uncles and other significant people in your life and begin to accept the idea that it happens to all of us. But we naturally assume that is far in the distance. All kinds of life things happen, school, career, families, all things that for some reason allow the years to pile up without realizing it til all of a sudden your own kids are asking you about lifespans and accumulating their own experiences. For me, that time was a real danger zone because significant people in my life then were in the declining years and I watched as my parents couldn’t do what they used to be able to.
I never had the fortune to say good bye to my parents like Wally did. My dad died suddenly while on the toilet one morning. My mom, all hooked up to ventilators and tubes in Winthrop Hospital, passed after my brother and I left for the night. The hardest death was that of my brother because we had become very close after our parents died and after I had come out to him. He and I would talk regularly, laughing at things my dad did or bitching about things my dad did. After his death, the loneliness was incredible. A void that no one other than a sibling could fill. My kids were great but it just didn’t feel the same and there was and still is an emptiness that only he could fill.
Now I am the oldest living member of my family. The only living member of my generation or above. Death doesn’t scare me so much anymore cause I have seen how death can be a relief of pain or loneliness. I had 3 elderly aunts who lived into their late 90’s and they were ready to pass when their time came. I saw such strength in them, and faith that truly comforted them until they passed. They were ready, and I want to be at that point when I am called also. Their eulogy, all of my family members’ eulogies would include love and tried the best they could to be good people. That is what I want to be remembered for as well and I hope I will be remembered for doing good things for people, making people laugh and hope that when my name comes up in conversation it will put smiles on their faces and tears in their eyes, cause I was pretty special after all, but tears of joy and pleasant memories.
Understanding the Last Sunset
Wally’s story resurrects many memories and stimulates many thoughts as I find myself in the winter season of my life.
My dad was an absent father. When I turned 40, I tracked him down, asked him questions, and got some ambiguous answers. But I did receive closure to the question I asked of myself – Was I my father? Six months later he died without any of us at his side. I said what I needed in that solo encounter. I expressed my disappointment in him and my desire to remain detached but I said it without anger and with quiet resolve. I don’t know how he felt or what he may have thought about in the hospital in his final hours after failed heart surgery. Perhaps his other family provided the final dignity and farewell that he would have wanted. Since we never met and have no contact, I’ll never know.
I do know that Wally’s call, to honor the efforts of the dying reminds me to ask more of what others need and offer less of what I think they need. A noble model for all relationships at all stages of life!
Wally mentioned my idea for a living eulogy. What if we made time to celebrate people’s lives while they can still hear it? In a sense, create a service for them not about them. I suspect many of us underestimate our worth and value to those who know us. Might hearing those words now, influence the rest of our lives for the better? I’d like to think so.