A universal experience, and yet the pain is so personal.
We all come to a stage in childhood when we realize that we are going to have to live without our parents and it comes as a terrible revelation.
Then as an adult we bury our fear of death and pretend that we can live with it. We might even imagine that the death of our parents will free us of the emotional baggage we carry around.
For those who have not lost a parent yet, let me warn you that it is as bad as your childish mind dreaded.
I left my Dad at the hospital, looking past the mask forcing him to breathe, and into his large startled eyes. I said, ‘I’ll be back in the spring’. He nodded. He had his wife there, and my older sister. He was either going to die or get better; my children needed me so I was trying to believe he would get better.
When I got the call that he had died, it felt like my heart was ripped out of my body. My hands were glued to my face, covering the grimace of pain on my face. I was wretched.
I felt like tearing my clothes in some sort of medieval ritual, I cried and cried. It was irrevocable. He was gone, a moment that I had always dreaded in my still childish heart.
My heart and mind were full of my Dad. I could picture his physical body, and I could conjure him in my mind. His tanned forehead and expressive eyes, his thin soft hair that he kept swept back so that it would not annoy him, his shoulders, and chest, even his gently acrid body odor.
His long fingers, rubbing his eyebrows in resigned irritation at being stuck in the hospital, the pain he had in his thin high-arched feet. I could see and feel and smell him in my memory, so physically.
While at his bedside I felt for a moment as if I was his mother, watching the beeping, blinking machines track his breathing just as I did with my son’s asthma attack. I felt his mother’s soul slip into my body and love her child.
I had been his child, held in his arms as a baby, and held his fingers offered on a walk to kindergarten. He had watched me grow up and tenderly offered advice and help from a respectful distance.
I heard his voice and saw his gestures and longed to see his corporeal self but he was gone forever.
I wept in the Zellers, I wept at the local church’s Christmas choir, and tears flowed in yoga. I became a sea of mourning with calm days in between.
One time I told him in my mind, “Dad, I am not feeling at all well, I think I am depressed” and he laughed lightly, the way he would, and smiled and said, “This is it, Meggie, this is life, this is all you have”. I felt reprimanded, and I knew he was right.
Then I had a lovely dream. Dad and I were on a field, far away from everyone else, and he was trying to remember a song and dance. We were both trying to remember the lyrics, and he was doing a soft shoe dance. We both came up with a rhyme to the last line, which I can’t remember, and then we leaned into to each other, bending at the waist, as if this was part of the song’s choreography, and kissed each other lightly on the lips.
When I woke up, I was filled with joy. It is the only time in my life that a dream has woken me in the middle of the night, not from a nightmare, but from pure happiness.
My Dad and I were similar in character, and close in spirit. Ultimately I knew that his dying could not separate our minds or our psyches. There is a world out there that is beyond the material, and I acknowledge it.
I realize now, two years later, that Dad lives in me. Not symbolically, living on in my teachings or philosophy, but he is actually part of my cell structure and I know he is there.
When I am enjoying feeding the birds, as he did, I share it with him. He is with me, alive, enjoying the world around us. I feel his spirit within me, and I am comforted.
I sent him a paperback copy of The Metaphysical Poets when he was first in the hospital, and when the hospital room was cleared the book came back to me, with a corner of a magazine page marking this sonnet by John Donne:
Death be not proud, though, some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill mee;
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art Slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charms can make us sleepe as well,
And better than thy stroake; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, death thou shalt die.