During my father’s last days and into the mourning process that followed, I encountered something I think of as the romance of death. Everyone we talk to has his or her own unique inner vision of what dying means.
I have written plenty about how mass culture consistently portrays death as a tragedy, a scary story, or an occasion of great sadness. Then I bray that the fear of death is so common and profound it becomes a major motivational force used in many cultural traditions including all types of marketing.
Afraid to die? Worried about you or your family? Buy something.
But there are some among us, myself included, who view death as a great journey, a cosmic adventure. We reject the idea that death is a horrible thing. We romanticize death as a transition, a portal through which we travel to a heavenly life. Death is a fresh start to another existence.
In my case I’ve read books about near-death experiences, spiritually transformative experiences, out-of-body experiences, and mystical experiences. I’ve talked with people who have had them. I get excited about all the possibilities that may possibly await us.
It is with that conceptual filter that I viewed the arc of my father’s physical decline. While I feel sad that I no longer have a physical dad to talk with, I honestly feel a sense of celebration that he did everything he needed to do here. He is free to fly with Mom.
EVERYONE HAS A STORY
Everyone has a different idea about what death entails. That’s what close friends and relatives of someone dying deal with — the wide variety of personal interpretations of the death experience. The topic often does not come up in everyday conversation until death or dying is actually here and now, sometimes without much advance notice.
We experienced this when my mother died in December of 2011. Some people wanted to turn it into a great loss. “Sorry for your loss” is a major tagline. I appreciate the love and sentiment behind it, but it’s not like we lost a Super Bowl or an election. To me, a loved one changed form. I believe that she is still here, just beyond the reach of my physical senses.
“She is with the Lord now,” others would say. People who have a religious outlook on life project their story of faith and/or dogma onto the story. They interpret every sequence of events in that well-traveled path in their faith-based consciousness. Good for them, not my path.
Even people who are religious sometimes treat death along the lines of bad luck, a shame, a burden, or sadness. It seems like a disconnect in faith to proselytize about living with Jesus yet still paint death in sad or tragic terms.
Some people interpret how sad you feel about someone’s death as a sign of the intensity of your love for that person — that somehow it is disrespectful to view passing in any happy way. It’s as if you have to put on a good grief show to satisfy them.
When my mother died, my father was of course sad. He had spent nearly 75 years together with that woman. Yet out of his love for her he was relieved that she no longer had to suffer. We in turn feel the same way for him. He had a pretty painless and comfortable two and a half years after my mother died, but in the very end, like in the last ten days, the pain appeared and changed everything.
When I was a kid my father took me to Los Angeles to see the USA-USSR Track Meet and a little bit of Hollywood. One night we went to a midnight screening of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. There is a scene in the movie where a guy kicks a pail and dies.
“He kicked the bucket!” Dad announced for all to hear with a loud, hearty laugh. His explanation helped others get the visual pun.
Hollywood has some legendary endings. Hollywood makes death a dramatic event. Much of the time it is quick — bang, bang, you’re dead. At other times it is IV drip slow intended to jerk some tears around.
During my father’s final days, it was so tempting to wait for him to say something profound or symbolic, the genesis of years full of pondering.
“Rosebud,” like in Citizen Kane.
“It is a good day to die,” like in Little Big Man.
We hovered around Dad waiting for him to surprise us with quotable gems. Sometimes he would say things out of the blue as if talking in his sleep. He seems to have led a few meetings, at one time speaking in his robust school superintendent’s voice from forty years ago.
Dad never talked about his own death except in practical terms like cemetery details. He did not wax philosophical about it and rarely mentioned it. He never said anything like, “I’m dying.” Whatever he had going on on his inner universe stayed in his inner universe.
But he did say, “Beautiful flowers … the sky is so perfect … nice and clear.”
What a tease!
IT’S NOT TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE
I remember in 1977 when Dad was writing his retirement speech. He liked to sprinkle humor into the mix, so he wrote, “Superintendents never die. They just lose their faculties.”
Part of the romance of death is “last conversations.” People visited Dad, some anticipating a good wrap-up show, a Tuesdays with Morrie thing.
One woman asked Dad if he had any words of wisdom to leave behind. He seemed to struggle for something good, knowing that the spotlight was shining on him. Finally, he said, “Obey the Lord.”
Huh? Dad, is that you?
Dad was a spiritual man in his actions, but not in his vocabulary. He rarely if ever preached or opined on religion or the meaning of life. He taught by example over rhetoric, which is probably why he struggled with the question.
People called to ask if they could visit. They wanted to share memories, a few chuckles, a sweet good-bye. It was hard to tell them it would not happen the way they most likely imagined.
Book authors and movie-makers love to depict deathbed scenes. Those depictions presume that the person dying still has the mental faculties to track conversations, retort with pithy comebacks, and divulge juicy, long-held secrets. Dad spoke mostly in energy through his hand squeezes, twinkling eyes, and angelic smile.
During one last conversation, he said to me, “You … are … a … great … [shrug].”
Superintendents never die.
For most of my life, I have been of a woo-woo lover. I enjoy pondering universal mysteries (as this blog amply illustrates) and a big part of that is what happens when we die. Are we here for a one-trick pony show or is there more to life that we’ll discover when we pop out of our bodies and zoom through the tunnel at the end?
My father apparently had little curiosity about the great beyond. I did not push my views onto him just as he did not push his onto me. I look with amusement at how I yearned for my father to break silence and share precious clues about his journey, which someday will be a journey for me, too. Will his journey support my vision of reality, or will I have to remodel my house of beliefs?
Perhaps all of the woo-woo phenomena that sound so incredible do, indeed, lack credibility and are neuronal show business. (I still don’t think so, but its not as if I haven’t been fooled before.)
To my surprise, about a year ago Dad read — and enjoyed — Proof of Heaven, the tome by neurosurgeon Eben Alexander on his near-death experience. Yet Dad got bored with Glimpses of Eternity, Raymond Moody’s book about shared death experiences and deathbed visions. The Guggenheim’s Hello from Heaven, a study on after-death communication, didn’t float his boat either.
Many of my friends characterize dying as a sacred adventure. Some had their own near-death experiences where they ventured out of their bodies. They had an ecstatic time and have no fear of death. A few have written books. So they, too, have their own unique take on someone dying, and it’s hardly ever sad. They view death as graduation from Earth School, the reunion of a lifetime, and the coolest trip ever.
My conception of the universe may prove to be entirely imaginary, but I love thinking of Dad flying with Mom. It is a vision of joy I hold sacred.
EACH TO HIS OWN
We all have our own conception of how the world works and what meets and greets us when we die. My dad did not share his vision, so in the end we go with what he expressed that he wanted when he was more consciously able to make his choices.
In my own case, I want a death that is part Monty Python and part Journey of Souls with some Johann Sebastian Bach accompaniment.
While Dad was dying I watched Private Life of Plants, a BBC mini-series featuring David Attenborough about the incredible ways plants have evolved. The intricacies are astounding. Watching this, I couldn’t help thinking that mass culture has dumbed human death way down into a soap opera far inferior to its true cosmic design. The whole of life may be much more wonderful than we know.