My dad turned 91 this year, and he has been battling several forms of cancer, namely prostate, on and off for nearly 20 years. His health has been kind of a roller-coaster ride, but he has been amazingly resilient. During one round of chemo a few years back, he was up on a ladder building a roof over the patio of his house! And then he built a sunroom underneath of it. And a brick patio around that! He used self-hypnosis and the power of thought to change his experience. He could have felt sorry for himself, but he chose to make the most of his days.
In and out of health issues, and for much of his life, he has been creating art from wood that he has carved or turned on a lathe. His deep sense of creativity and his fascination with math, physics and science have inspired some truly amazing pieces, some of which are on display in public buildings in both Maryland and Texas, and most of which would never have happened had he just given up.
As I was preparing for my last day at work last week, I got a call that my father wasn't doing well. Having the freedom to do so (perfect timing), I hopped on a plane to see him for a few days. It wasn't easy, but I'm glad I did. Seeing him so weak, and fighting physical therapy, I just wished there was something I could do to protect him from his physical limitations. His cardiologist put him back in the hospital for tests. Getting more oxygen really perked him up. He didn't eat all week, but he was joking around and being more himself again. But since he wasn't eating, it wasn't hard to see where things might be going.
On Friday, I had a chance to talk with him alone, and we had a wonderful visit. Something we hadn't had a chance to do face-to-face for several years. I let him know that no matter what happened, I love him, and I respect his choice, either to stay and fight, or to let go. He looked at me in the eye and said, "I understand your concerns. I want to make it." When I gave him a hug and said goodbye, he held on tight and told me, "I love you so very, very much." I knew it was probably the last time I would see him. I spent time talking with his wife, the lovely mother-figure in my life, and made sure she is prepared for what is to come. All things considered, we're all in the best place we can be.
That evening I prepared for my trip home, and Saturday provided a lot of time to think while I was flying and driving back to our little paradise here in the mountains. Early this morning the call came. He was finally free from his physical constraints. He "made it," though not necessarily in the way that he had meant it.
Now I know many people would immediately respond, "Oh, I'm so sorry for your loss." This has always been a pet peeve, because we didn't lose anything, except some physical presence and a tired old worn-out body that wasn't serving anyone very well. He is still here with us, and I am happy. I am happy that my dad had such a long, happy life, despite his health challenges. I'm so glad he had his lovely wife, caring, nurturing and encouraging him for the past 35 years. I am glad that we have been able to build an adult relationship of respect and enjoyment after some tumultuous times in years past. I am happy that he is no longer encumbered by his frail, aching body. He is free. How could I be anything but happy? Yes, we will miss him, and yes, we will cry. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't be happy.
Sooner or later, we all have to give up our physical bodies. It is such a natural part of our life, yet we fight it as if we can somehow go to the permitting department and negotiate a special exception for ourselves, or for the ones we love. Then we are all the more disappointed when the "get-out-of-death-free" certificate doesn't get approved. Death is just as beautiful as birth. It's just happening in the opposite direction. It doesn't have to be a sad occasion. The circumstances might be disappointing, or in some cases, unexpected or tragic, but death itself is freedom.
As I was watching my father's experience, it occurred to me that our body is in a constant state of dying. As soon as we finish a meal, our body digests the food, and the process of dying begins. Fortunately, a healthy body tells us something is wrong, triggering hunger and thirst, which inspires us to eat and drink. By re-nourishing ourselves, our body resets itself, starting the dying process all over again. Sooner or later, our body can't handle the constant cycle anymore and it wears out. It happens to every living thing in this universe.
So what is the lesson? Don't be "sorry for someone's loss" when a loved one makes a transition from this journey we call life. A life is nothing to be sorry for, and neither is death, which is a natural part of life. Take a moment to honor the person who has taken a brave step into the next realm. Use words that give comfort that don't include "I" or "me." Use words that give thanks and gratitude for a life well-lived, even if it didn't turn out the way you might have wanted it to. Life is too precious to be "sorry."
Embrace life, even in death. Allow death to happen, and appreciate its beauty and serenity, no matter when or how it happens. And encourage the people you care about to do the same. Most importantly, make the best use of the time you have. You're perfectly welcome to spend your time fighting and resenting nature, but that just steals what precious time you have to enjoy and appreciate the life around you to its fullest!
It's okay to say goodbye. We all have to do it in many ways throughout our life, and we always survive it. We survive this, too, and so do our loved ones who say goodbye to us.
Bye, Dad. Thanks for all you have taught me, right up to the very last day. See you when I get there.