I have been crying a lot lately. The great gift of tears that seem to pry open all the cracks a little wider and let everything spill out. This is what’s up for me now, and the only thing I can do is just to let them move on through.
When I found out he was in the hospital, it sounded very straight forward. Probably pneumonia. A little oxygen and IV antibiotics and he would be out of there in a few days. He sounded positively chipper on the phone, feeling so much better once the oxygen was put on him. I checked on him by phone every day over the next four days, but something is lost in communicating medical information across 2500 miles. What? He’s on 6 liters of oxygen now? What? He’s on a face mask? I knew it was really serious when I said “Dad, I’m planning to come out there to see you” and he said “That will be very nice.” Rather than “Oh, no don’t bother” or “Its not necessary”.
By the time I was able to get a flight out of Missoula and make it to Wilmington, he was on the ventilator, an intervention he never wanted but was necessary to keep him alive until family could arrive. He opened his eyes, and I know that he knew I was there.
I am not a stranger to the ICU. I am comfortable among the tubes and beeps and tweets of the equipment. Dad looked so soft, not quite frail, but lacking any sharp edges. I spent 24 hours with him, talking into his ear, kissing his forehead and massaging his arms and legs. I played him some Bach, other family sang to him, my brother cracked some funny jokes for him. I can’t recall any other 24 hours more precious to me in all my life.
Almost immediately after getting home, I started assembling a collection of photographs for a slide show to be shown at the memorial. Photos came in from all the various family members and friends, many shots I had never seen before; his early childhood and young adult life, his hooding for his PhD. There he is smiling at Christmas time, there he is laughing in China, there he is again rejoicing at the top of St Mary’s peak. I have been immersed in a journey through my father’s life. I know he had uniquely difficult childhood, but I am in awe of how much joy he found, how much life and love surrounded him, and right there in those photographs I can see him drinking it up. My Dad was happy, and I think he knew he was happy. What a gift.
Being at the side of a person as they die is one of the most intimate experiences I have ever been gifted. The total surrender and vulnerability of this man who was so strong and capable in life, the open heartedness in the room, the love that surrounded his bedside, the reverent silence after he passed. I did not want to leave. How can we just leave him here?
Now the slide show is finished. I set it to his favorite music, being careful not to choose anything too morose. Born in England at the start of WWII, my Dad was a fan of requiems and liturgical choral pieces which invoke sadness in just about anyone, but I settled for Bach Fugue in G minor. Here it is if you’re curious, played by – not my dad. I feel good about the project, but the person I most want to share it with is my Dad.
So what does this have to do with mindfulness? Or what does mindfulness have to do with this? I think the answer is… everything. When the biggest storms have hit my life, I have been so grateful for my meditation practice. My life is forever changed by my fathers departure from this world, but there is also something unchangeable deep within. Mindfulness teaches us to open to whatever is arising in the present moment, even if its painful. We don’t get to skip the hard parts. In fact, we cheat ourselves out of something precious if we try to skip the hard parts. They are what teach us the most. I know that I am not in control of this process, but I can be present to its unfolding and see what it has to teach me.
I offer a favorite quotation by Rilke in closing.
“… we could arrange our lives in accordance with the principle that tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us to be alien will become our most intimate experience…So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises before you larger than any you’ve ever seen, if an anxiety like light and cloud shadows moves over your hands and everything that you do. You must realize that something has happened to you. Life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hands and will not let you fall.” —Rilke