“Well, we all like things to be predictable, don’t we? We expect things to be safe and to keep on happening just the way they always have. We expect the sun to rise in the morning. We expect to get up, survive the day and finish up back in bed at the end of it, ready to start all over again the next day. But maybe that’s just a trick we play on ourselves, our way of making life seem ordinary. Because the truth is, life is so extraordinary that for most of the time we can’t bring ourselves to look at it. It’s too bright and it hurts our eyes. The fact of the matter is that nothing is ever certain. But most people never find that out until the ground suddenly disappears from beneath their feet.”
― Steve Voake, The Dreamwalker’s Child
Sunday night I called my Dad from the road. I had stopped for a break somewhere in Missouri, and just wanted to hear his voice. He sounded good. He was still in the hospital, but was fully hydrated, thanks to an IV line. His speech, which had been horribly slurred and difficult to understand, was clear. You could hear in his voice that he was tickled I was almost there, and would be there the next day. We exchanged “I love you”s and hung up.
I was stoked that he was sounding so good, and started imagining all the things we were going to do – playing cards, maybe making a puzzle, sitting and talking about Life, drinking a sip of port or scotch or beer. A sip is about all he could handle – he hadn’t eaten in over a week due to the tumors pressing on his stomach.
Climbing into my car at 3 am, exhausted after the previous day’s 1000 mile drive, I was determined to make the final push to Albuquerque and get Dad out of the hospital and back into his house. I had to pull over and close my eyes a few hours later, but I kept on going.
Then my sister called.
“Bad news…” uh oh
Dad had died in his sleep peacefully around 8:00 am.
I pulled off the highway – well, that’s sort of wrong. I didn’t gracefully put on my blinker and ease to a stop. I slammed on the brakes and swerved to the shoulder, winding up directly under the Exit 40 sign (Elk City, OK, if you’re curious). I put my head on the steering wheel and sobbed big, heaving sobs. Then I texted the only person I could think of, and he called me back immediately and listened to me blubber. I have no idea what I said…
After we hung up, I pushed back the tears, texted a few friends and family to let them know what was happening, and looked at the road. I took a deep breath, sat up straight, blew my nose and wiped my eyes, and pulled back onto the road. I still had 7 hours to go and, damn it all, I was going to get there.
As I drove, I thought about impermanence. I thought about how none of us really knows from minute to minute what lies ahead, and the only thing we can do is be flexible and roll with life, grabbing it by the horns and living it. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, said,
“It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.”
As that floated through my head, it occurred to me that my suffering was because of MY expectations about the coming weeks, and MY loss and how it affected MY life. I shifted my perspective to think about what his own death meant to Dad.
It meant that he went to see Mom on her birthday (yes, he died on my mom’s birthday).
It meant that she most likely greeted him with huge platters of homemade food and exotic cheeses and fruit and fresh, crusty loaves of bread – a feast to celebrate his arrival. I bet she even made a cheesecake.
It meant that he got to hold my sister Maureen in his arms again for the first time in 40 years. I can only imagine the emotion in that hug.
It meant that he could breathe freely and laugh again.
It meant that he could have a tall, cold German beer.
It meant that he could sit and talk with his mother and father. He never really knew his father, who died when he was only three.
It meant that his pain was gone.
When I started thinking about his death from that perspective, taking myself out of the equation, I became joyful. I cried again, but they were happy tears over the fabulous day he must be having. There were so many good things happening all at once for a man who sacrificed so much of himself here for so many people. How could I be sad?
So, despite my loss, I choose to rejoice over the fact that I had this lion of a man in my life for 51 years. I rejoice that he was my father, and taught me through his actions about honesty, integrity, morality, compassion, and love. I rejoice that I was privileged enough to witness his passionate focus, his sacrifices for his family, his determination, and his ability to overcome heartbreak. I rejoice to know he is walking somewhere, fingers intertwined with my mother’s, whistling as he goes.
Sleep well, Dad. See you in about 40 years…