My Dad died on December 15, 2012.
In the nearly five months between the time his doctors told him the cancer had returned and the last day of his life, Dad made his peace. He made his peace with life. He made his peace with death. He made his peace with friends and loved ones. As a person of faith, he made his peace with God. On one of my several visits over the course of the last few weeks of his life, he told me how he felt blessed because he still had some time to be with folks — to reminisce over old memories, or laugh at inside jokes, or enjoy the comfortable silence that can exist when one person has history with another.
Now my Dad was not some sort of Pollyanna positive thinker — far from it! He made no pretense about the dreadfulness of his illness. He didn’t try to put on a brave face for others’ benefit. He did something far greater. He put on an honest face. The disease was persistent and painful and took everything away from him before it eventually took his life. No, my Dad didn’t think the cancer was a blessing. The blessing he found in the slow onslaught of the disease was time — those extra few months of being here, in this life. The blessing for Dad was the time we all seem to take for granted every day until the day comes and we have no more of it.
For the past thirteen months, I’ve thought much about the last five months of my Dad’s life. I’ve thought about our conversations across some of those days. I’ve thought about taking him for rides to get a cup of coffee or see his favorite fishing spot. I’ve thought about the joy he expressed one afternoon when, for lunch, he ate a ginormous, garden ripened tomato, which he had liberally assaulted with salt and pepper (“When you’re dying, you don’t have to worry about sodium intake,” he quipped). I’ve also thought about the prayer I had with him just before the ambulance arrived to take him to the residential hospice unit two days before he died. I can’t remember much of anything I said in the prayer, but I remember what he said after I finished, “All of us are in God’s hands all the time, Gary. Maybe I can just feel them a bit better right now.” Indeed.
In the press and stress that is every day living, it’s so incredibly easy to forget that this life — this mysterious, marvelous, miraculous gift of physical existence can be over in half a heartbeat. With the day to day struggles of finances, kids, relationships, jobs and health challenges of one sort or another, it can be difficult to see the gift of life that comes with each breath we take. When we forget how precious this life is, we can easily forget our own humanity and we can begin to see others as objects to be molded, broken, manipulated or otherwise used for our benefit instead of greeting them as our companions in this earthly pilgrimage.
Recently I’ve started to marvel at how easily I can get caught up in the small-time dramas that seem to pervade daily living. A snarky remark here. A snide comment there. And for what? To prove my case? To get a laugh? To win an argument? And if my heart stopped mid-beat, would I want to take any of that stuff to the other side with me?
My Dad wasn’t perfect. He would have been the first to say so. But the gift of time Dad was given gave me the gift of a different perspective as someone who is rapidly concluding my fifty-fifth trip around the sun. It’s not always easy to remember that we’re just passing through this life. We sometimes forget that none of us will leave this life alive. It’s not always easy to remember that the thing we think is the most important thing ever could be chaff in the winds of memory in a matter of minutes. We sometimes forget that time spent nurturing relationships is far more important than checking off one more damned thing on the task list.
Thirteen months on, I’m still learning to live without my dad’s wit and wisdom, and yet, I find myself benefiting from that wit and wisdom all of the time. Some days are better than others. Today is a good day. Thanks, Dad!