My Father’s Birthday, Death Day, and a Possibility

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Today is my father’s birthday. He would have been ninety years old. He died three years ago at the age of eighty-seven. He died consciously, albeit full of oxycodone. He died with his eyes open, searching the ceiling, but he couldn’t tell us what he was looking at. His mouth drew down into a frown of awe,  or fear, maybe, or even a great new emotion he had never felt before in his life. I could not read his face at that moment, except that his eyes focused intently on something above, something on or through the ceiling.

The day before, he had lapsed into unresponsiveness, except for an occasional foray into the world of the family surrounding his bedside. My sister had been sitting beside him, when suddenly he looked into her eyes, called her by the nickname only he ever used, and said, “People upstairs are waiting for me.” Then he slid back into his journey.

My sister said, “Yes, Grandma and Grandpa are waiting for you, and Aunt Mary and Aunt Rose.” She named his brothers and sisters who had died ahead of him. I don’t know how she did that, how she sat there and talked to him normally, but she did. She knew that “upstairs” referred to Heaven. That’s how our father always referred to Heaven— Upstairs.

Recently, I’ve been watching a program on cable TV about Near-Death Experiences, which have been documented often enough now to reveal a pattern. The sick or injured people recognize the moment they slip out of their bodies. They feel peace, euphoria, and indifference to whatever  brought them to the point of death. They see or feel white light, a tunnel, sometimes, and the presence of God. They might hear beautiful music, or see gorgeous panoramas of flowers or amorphous colors,  and relatives who had preceded them in death. The spirits of the dead ones always stand waiting.

This is the point that connects the documented  Near-Death experiences with what my father said just before he died. He “saw” his loved ones who had already died, waiting for him.

This phenomenon of seeing dead relatives is also well-documented by hospice workers who sit with people who actually die. Atheists would have us believe that the brain is fooling us, that at the critical moment, it fulfills our dearest wishes, which are to be reunited with dead loved ones. I don’t know; no one knows, and we cannot know, so discussing the phenomenon with respect to learning the truth is pointless.

However, what seems important is that all these stories of near-death experiences have much in common, regardless of whatever religion the person believed before they arrived at the point of death. This fact suggests that the dying process is more or less universal for human beings. It raises the possibility that whatever happens afterwards may also be universal. Whatever occurs to the spirit after the body completes the death process may well be marked by universal qualities, regardless of what a person believed in life.

Adherents of this or that religion will be with me so far, but will say that only their version of the afterlife will apply from that point onwards, and that it will apply to everyone. There’s something inherently wrong with that concept, but I’m not sure what.

What if the dying experience, and what occurs afterwards, has nothing to do with anyone’s concept of God, Heaven, Hell or how one should conduct one’s earthly life? What if no one religious concept of life after death really applies? What if our actual death experience, with its own, unique sequelae, occur pretty much the same for everyone, and that religious matters lose all relevance? The evidence of the Near-Death Experience, coupled with the reports of actual death experiences, suggest that this possibility cannot be overlooked.

Think about your own struggles with religion, if you’ve had them. Think about the conflicts between you and your family or friends who believe differently with respect to religious systems? Could all of that be meaningless? Could none of it come to bear upon our ultimate experience of death and the persistence (or lack thereof) of consciousness? Could our spirits actually unite in the joy so often related to us by survivors of the Near-Death Experience?

What if all our religious dissension, wars, murders, torture and annihilation of entire populations have no ultimate meaning whatsoever?

The Season Changes

 

Finally, after a long and unpleasant winter, the first flowers of spring are up, and we are able to plant the small impatiens seedlings that will grow into large globes of blossoms by the end of August.  My mother has planted these flowers around our house each spring for the past thirty years, but this year, my father will not be with us to enjoy them.

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The season change causes us to weep. Why should we weep any more during the season change than on any other day ?

Unfortunately, I know the answer.

A friend, who lost both parents more than five years ago, said recently, “I’m beginning to forget what they looked liked.”

So, that’s what happens? You forget what they looked like? Insult is added to injury, and the beauty fades away with the pain? No! I prefer the pain, with its clear image of my father as he reclines in his easy chair in front of the TV, as he jokes with his grandchildren, as he sits at the dinner table, or at a restaurant, or behind the wheel of his car, or as he walks in the mall for his daily exercise.  

The change of seasons takes us a little further from the days my father was with us. The budding leaves put a soft cloak over not only the branches, but over those last days of winter and my father’s life, those bitter, awkward and awful days.  The greening of the vegetation forms a magic carpet, an undulating cushion upon which we sit and must stay as it transports us into a new season, whether we want to go or not.

So we weep, knowing that soon we, too, will begin to forget, whether we want to or not. Oh, we’ll have photographs– those flat, frozen, scraps that somehow serve as potent time travel devices.  We’ll have the tangible proof of his existence– ourselves, his accomplishments both tangible and intangible–and we’ll have each other’s prompts that will reassure us that we have not become totally unhinged from our own lives.

Soon, the season will change again, and peak summer will splash intense colors in front of us, such that we’ll not have much room for looking at other things, and then we’ll remember other summers, other changes of seasons.  We’ll smile, and recount stories of family  affairs, and then we’ll know something we do not yet know now.

This summer won’t really be so much different from the others, will it?

 

Left Behind

The house is large, very large. My mom and I hear each other’s every movement,  sometimes each other’s breathing.  I never noticed echoes before, but now, dishes echo, books thud, floors sing under footsteps, and closing doors startle the senses.

Such is life, now that my father is gone.

My father has been the hub and focus of the family for nearly sixty years, and now, in his absence, he is still at the center of things, and we reluctantly reposition everything and everyone in the family to accomodate his loss. We still cry, Mom every day.

Everything reminds us of him, of course, and we feel as if he’s still with us, as if he’ll emerge from the bedroom every morning, happy, ready for coffee and newspaper, planning the activities of the day.

We know he’s gone forever, at least his body is gone– Allah alone knows about the rest– but we still feel him, see him just around the corner, hear his voice as he wonders what’s for dinner. His favorite after shave lotion is still sitting on the bathroom sink. Sometimes I smell it, just to bring him back, and then I cry.

Now that spring is here, and the leaves are emerging, I look outside and see him sitting on the patio late in the afternoon, contemplating nature, worrying about the kids, or simply resigning himself to the inevitable. Mom and I brought out the patio furniture two days ago, but I redistributed all of it in a new pattern. Mom didn’t object. The memory of him sitting is his chair is enough; we need not look at the empty chair in its usual position.

It’s as if we’ve been left behind. He is gone, to be sure, and gone where? He is, “…in Heaven with his Lord,” as my mom says, but I still worry about that sort of thing, being educated in the medical model of life, and lacking the depth of spirituality that gives certainty. Death of a loved one, however, is one way of reinforcing a belief in life after death, if not of Heaven itself,  because I cannot bear to think he is anywhere else right how.

So we are left behind. We’ll join him someday, and that thought gives us courage if not confidence, acceptance if not the eagerness of anticipation. After all, what does life prepare us for, if not for more life?

If Worry Could Fix Things…

One day last year, while my parents were vacationing, I ignored a leak from the bathroom on the second floor of their home. A day later, the leak exploded and drenched two walls of the kitchen downstairs. I developed a migraine rather promptly. When I told my father, he said, “Don’t worry. The walls can be fixed.”
I nearly cried from guilt and worry, and then he said, “If worrying could fix it, I’d encourage you to worry more.”

That was typical of my father’s gentle way of making things right. For all his harsh words and strict standards over the years, he’d always had a charming way of soothing something that seemed unbearable.

I recall the night Ginger, my pet hamster, died. I was ten years old, and we’d been out, shopping, perhaps, but when we returned, I remembered that I hadn’t fed my hamster that day.

I went into the basement, where I kept his cage, and found his furry body curled up in his favorite corner. He seemed asleep, but his back peaked with a rigidity I’d never seen before. I reached into the cage and grasped him gently, as usual, but his body was stiff and cold. I dropped him and screamed. My father heard the scream and started screaming himself. He thought I’d encountered a burglar or worse.

I ran upstairs and yelled, “Ginger is dead!” and then felt guilty for causing my father such a scare. He’d been watching TV in the living room.

I cried, and could not go to bed, so I sat on the sofa close to Papa. He put his arm around me, and told me about the night his father died. I don’t remember the details of the story, because I was so impressed with the fact that my father did not cry while he told it, even though I could see he was still sad after all those years.

I said to myself, “If Papa can bear the death of his father, I can bear the death of Ginger.” I also realized that someday I’d be in his position. Someday I’d have to bear my Papa’s death.

That thought caused me to cry again, nearly to the point of choking, and to snuggle into my father’s side as if to pin him there next to me forever. How would I be able to bear Papa’s death? My ten year old heart didn’t know.

I asked myself that question periodically over the next forty-seven years, and never learned the answer. My father died on March 9, 2008, at the age of eight-seven, and I still don’t know the answer. A part of me has died, but not the part that contained my father. That part lives in my heart and half my DNA. His spirit still speaks to me and to everyone else he touched, and there are many of us.

 
Now I worry that when I stop crying, he will die yet again. In the meantime, I will ask myself not to worry. If worrying could fix things, I’d encourage myself to worry more.

 

We Buried My Papa

29.jpg  My father died Sunday, March 9, 2008.  All five of we remaining family members had a say in funeral arrangements,  but because my father had been a prominent man in business, we had to consider the many visitors that would come from all over the area, even from different states.

We chose an elegant funeral home and an expensive casket, amidst comments of, “He deserves the best,” even as we knew that our choices made no difference in the world. We had lost him forever.

I did not want to enbalm. I think the procedure is brutal, bordering on mutilation. My family is Christian, though, so the decision to enbalm prevailed. I dreaded seeing his corpse all dressed up, face painted to look as though he were sleeping.  We were standing,  surrounding his bed when he took his last breath, and he did not look as though he were sleeping. 

In the casket, in fact, he did look as though he were sleeping,  with sculpted stillness. I touched his inert, icey hands, the same hands I used to hold when they were warm and soft, as he suffered the pain of metastatic bone cancer. I kissed his cheek, as I used to kiss him good-bye when one of us went out.  I touched his shell, the shell in which he lived, breathed, thought, laughed, worked, prayed, loved, grew old, wise, sick, and then died.   

When I first learned about the Islamic customs for burial, I thought they were sensible and respectful. Washing the body, wrapping, and burying in a simple, biodegradable container seemed so much more satisfying than enbalming or spending thousands of dollars on a magnificent casket.  

In Riyadh, I used to feel honored to take part in the janaza prayers following the fard prayers, in the mosque,  of deceased people I did not know. The Muslim customs remind us that we are all equal in death, and that we take nothing from this world to our appointment with Allah. Performing the short janaza prayers after the fard puts death into the context of life.

However, as the ceremonial activities for my father continued over two days, with several hundred visitors, three eulogies, a funeral procession that needed a police escort at every intersection, and a military bugler playing Taps over the flag draped coffin, I started to feel the spirit of the phrase “celebration of life” that now describes funeral rituals in America. 

Through my tears, I smiled, giving thanks to Allah for this wonderful man who was my father, mentor of men and women, teacher and leader, well-respected by all who knew him.  I thanked Allah for all the years we had my father. I thanked Allah for everything.  

I still believe in the Muslim burial customs, and plan to have them for myself.  For my father, however, we did the right thing.