Whenever we see a sporting event or theatrical production, the last few minutes of the experience are so powerful. The teams are battling for supremecy, the last push is thrashed for the big win, or the 11:oo o’clock song is sung. It’s the finale, so everyone expects things to be big, dramatic, and utterly memorable.
Life is like that, too. When we are closing in on the final days or minutes of our lives, our life experiences become phenomenally intense.
In the month preceeding my father’s suicide, he began scurrying all over California, trying to find a place to call home where he felt safe. His mental illness and paranoia was taking over and we, as his family, had to make decisions that would protect him and those around him, including my mother. There were battles and accusations, pleas and vitriol spewed everywhere as we tried to resolve these issues.
Ultimately, Dad decided how things were going to go and killed himself in the back of his truck using carbon monoxide from the exhaust pipe.
When Mama was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer six years later, she seemed fairly resigned to her fate. She was, after all, 83 years old and ready to be with my father.
The strange thing is that the night before she died, she grew very impatient and angry. She wasn’t able to communicate because her lungs had filled up with fluid from the cancer and she was incredibly weak because she hadn’t be able to eat for four weeks. I gave her some medication to calm her down and she went to sleep. I will never know what it was she was trying to communicate because she died during the night.
When my son and grandbaby were lost to miscarriages, the intensity was overwhelming for everyone. With my son, my then-girlfriend and I were 15 years old, far too young to be parents. With my grandchild, my daughter’s grandmother had died only days before. In both instances, the turmoil surrounding the pregnancies carried dynamics that these precious children couldn’t bear.
Even my former mother-in-law asked a fascinating question as she lie dying in her hospital bed. She and I were unusually close, considering that my ex-wife and I had been divorced for 22 years. She asked, “Jim, what do you think it’s like after we die?”
This amazingly strong woman was 71 years old and was asking me this question. It was a profoundly powerful moment of intimacy between us.
“I think that there is an afterlife and it is whatever we believe it will be. I believe it will be loving and joyful if that’s where our hearts are. It will be cold and lonely if that’s how we view our lives.”
“How do we know when we’re going to die?” she queried.
“When we are free from fear and ready.” I responded.
As she pondered what I had said, I saw her looking around her hospital room into the faces of her loving daughters and granddaughters.
“I’m ready. Let’s pray.” she said. So, we all joined hands and began praying out loud. Then, the room grew silent. After nearly ten minutes, Mother-in-law-dearest, which is what I always called her, opened her eyes.
“I’m still here?” We all broke out into ribald laughter.
The next morning, quietly and peacefully, she joined those who had gone before her.
One of my former students, who lost her life at 21 years old in an automobile accident, knew at her inner most level, if not consciously, that she was not long for this lifestream. Her poetry, music, and prayers all were clear pictures of that truth. We all missed the messages because we either weren’t ready to hear them or we weren’t supposed to hear them. The preparation experience apparently was for her alone.
There are times when we do see it coming.
When my brother, my family, and I were sitting around the table eating the day my mother died, after a discussion about his alcoholism and desire to be alone, my family and I knew that David would be gone within the year. Sadly, it only took him four months to transition into his new existence. The signs were there. His awareness was there. He was clearly ready. We were simply able to see it. Even with that clarity, there was nothing we could do to prevent him dying from his alcoholism.
Life is intense and full of meaning. Death is no different.
Our fears and our joys are amplified as we approach our final time. It’s remarkable how many times one has heard, “He said he loved me in a way that was so much more intimate the night before he died.” There had been no warning or omen. There had been no disease or chronic illness. He was just aware at his spiritual core that he had to say good-bye and mean it.
As I watched my cousin deal with his own demise this week, I realized that his battle has only begun, although it is likely to last only a few more weeks. Like my mother, his aunt, he is dying of pancreatic cancer. He is only 50 years old.
His children and girlfriend are also trying to make sense of what makes no sense at all.
I hope they all find peace in this process and can say good-bye in a loving, healthy way, as a unified family. It will make a difference to all of them, my cousin included.
I’ve experienced 46 deaths of people close to me in my lifetime. Each of their lives have changed who I am. They have made a difference. My cousin has made a difference in my life. The weight of their absence is great. The silence of their voices nearly painful. Yet, the love they’ve given and the love they’ve let me share is what I hold onto now. It’s all I have left.
Now, as your shot clock winds down, as the last few pages of your score are sung, I wish you “Good journey!” Joe. Bravo, Cousin, for a life fully lived. I love you. I will miss you. Thank you for changing my life with your love.