Twenty-five years ago today my father passed away. I was able to fly home from college to be by his side, but he was so far gone he never recognized me. Except maybe for one brief moment when he was lucid enough to say my name before returning to whatever half-world he was living in by then.
I grew up knowing my father could die. Fearing he’d die more than once. I was too young fortunately to actually remember the three months in the hospital when his second transplant was such a spectacular failure that it not only cost him the kidney he’d just received but a quarter of a lung, too. But I was there for the years of dialysis and the deteriorating bones that meant multiple spinal fusions and long-term pain.
And I was there at the very end when he was gone but his body remained fighting on even though it was over. (I was also there when his body finally gave out but that damned ventilator kept right on going and the nurse didn’t rush in to turn it off because she was trying to give us time to say goodbye…)
I think about that when I think about the coming months and all those people who will die alone because it’s not safe for their family to be there or because the medical staff are going to be so overwhelmed they’ll be rushing from one dying patient to another without a second to spare to call in family.
And I have to say that for me being there when someone you love dies is not an experience I want to repeat. I was also there when my grandfather died and neither my dad nor my grandpa were aware enough at the end to care. Seeing them reduced that way was not the last memory I wanted of them.
It was very hard to move past that last horrible image of my father to all the memories of good meals together and chess games we played and him coming to all my games in high school and us sitting on the couch watching Star Trek after he’d get home from dialysis. For years that image of that damned ventilator still going after he’d flatlined stood between me and all those good memories that had filled my life.
I know that for others it’s different. I took some Jungian psychology class the year after my dad died and one of my fellow students talked about being with his grandma when she died and what a wonderful transcendent experience it was. (I honestly wanted to throttle him…) So maybe for others it would be different.
But if in the coming months you lose someone you love and you’re not able to be there with them in those last moments, don’t let that eclipse all the moments that came before. Don’t be bitter or angry about not being able to say goodbye. Tell them you love them now. Focus on the good moments you shared. Look through the photos or the emails or the texts or the Facebook posts. See them as they were when they were vibrant and alive. Carry that forward with you.
My dad has now been gone from my life for longer than he was in it. (By a number of years.) But he is still the single most important person in my life. I was blessed with a father who knew what it meant to be a good father. Who loved and supported his kids unconditionally. Who treated us with patience and forgiveness even when we were at our worst. Who showed us how to treat others to make the world a better place.
I miss him still. And today I’ll have a good steak dinner in his memory and I’ll think about all the good moments we shared and how fortunate I was to have him in my life for as long as I did. And how fortunate I am to have his memory with me always.