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?

Friday the Thirteenth

My cousin Dave, coming home for the last time:
November 2009
Last November thirteenth fell on a Friday— Friday the Thirteenth. I had never felt superstitious about that day or about anything else, and I still don’t. Friday the Thirteenth had been a day to make fun, to pretend in ghosts and bad luck, and to attribute any of the day’s unpleasantness to the fact of Friday the Thirteenth. Famous movies have been made along that theme, but I haven’t bothered to see any of them. Last Friday the Thirteenth, my family experienced its own worst nightmare.

The phone rang late in the morning. I answered it, and heard my aunt’s voice, as she skipped the usual, “Hi, how are you?” salutation, and said, “David was killed this morning in Afghanistan.”

“What?” I said. Had I heard correctly?

I had.

He and his troops had been hit by a roadside bomb. He and one other man had been killed.

“A roadside bomb?” I said. How could such a thing have happened? David had been a Navy SEAL. He had been deployed in dozens of dangerous, secret missions, and always came back in one piece. He did this for twenty years, after which he still hadn’t had enough, so he returned to the hot spots as a civilian independent contractor. He didn’t do it for the money– he’d already earned a fortune– he did it because it was in his blood. He couldn’t stay away. Every year he was off to Iraq or Afghanistan or someplace he wasn’t allowed to reveal not even to his wife.

He had won awards and recognitions for bravery and saving people. I never knew the details, and I didn’t ask. He was my cousin David, and I loved him for being my cousin and part of my extended family.

My three siblings and I flew to Virginia Beach for the funeral. Many of my cousins were there, some from Wisconsin and from California. We all stayed in the same hotel, and rented cars to get us to the funeral and to his home afterwards where we gathered to keep his family company, and exchange condolences.

They had laid out his body dressed in formal navy uniform, in an open, white casket. He even wore his hearing aid, which, I thought, was odd, until I noticed that many of the men present also wore hearing aids, because of exposure to one too many bombs, one too many rounds of gunfire. The hearing aid indicated something more than hearing loss.

The only sign of trauma was a slightly misaligned jaw and some superficial facial abrasions that had been well-covered with make-up. He had died from concussive shock. We were surprised. When you hear of a roadside bomb, you think of blood and guts and limbs flying all over the place. David appeared nearly normal, making his death from a roadside bomb almost surrealistic. I wanted to know how one dies of concussive shock.  When I got back to work the week after the funeral, I asked one of the pathologists at my hospital.Concussive shock is like super blunt force trauma; it can shear off main arteries, scramble brains, crush major organs, and short-circuit the nervous system into a fatal arrhythmia.  Any one of these insults can kill a person. I wanted to know which one killed David, so I could further understand his death. I didn’t ask.

The funeral home looked like all funeral homes in the United States, with large rooms holding formal upholstered chairs, gold-leafed frames around classical art prints hung on pastel walls, all creating an air of a settled family home. Crowds congregated in each of the rooms; evidently, David’s funeral was expected to be well-attended, and the funeral home allocated several rooms for us.  We arrived, greeted his wife and children who stood blank-eyed, receiving guests. Hugs and more hugs, tears and more tears, quiet voices and an occasional chuckle filled the rooms for several hours as we all mingled, remembered Dave, and watched his photo DVD.

In America these days, family members put together a collection of still photos representing major stages in the life of the deceased. The funeral homes put these photos on DVD, then project them onto a screen or a blank wall while guests mingle and watch. One of David’s photos included my father and his father,  laughing during one of our family dinners. All three— now gone. I cried.

After the wake, we broke into small groups. My siblings and I went to dinner with our California cousins who we now  see only at funerals. My sister tried to make her usual social jokes and stale conversation, and I couldn’t wait to get out of there, go back to the hotel and read a good book.

The next morning, we all piled into the car I had rented. My brother wanted me to use the GPS to find the church,  but I am more comfortable looking at a map and putting the route into my head. They all criticized my driving, which was evidently more aggressive than usual, but not one of them offered to drive in this city to which none of us had ever visited. I took up the challenge, as the eldest and the one most experienced in navigating beyond the shores of home.

I don’t know what kind of church it was, and I didn’t care. Arriving early, we walked around the grounds and stood under a golden-leafed maple tree. Then we heard the rumble of many engines, as motorcycle after motorcycle entered the parking lot. Denim, leather and steel dominated the view from then on, with an occasional American flag atop it all. They kept coming, until I lost count. I tried to take a picture of them on my cell phone, but I couldn’t fit the whole view on my screen. As the last of the motorcycles crowded into line, we noticed a military formation practicing their moves. David would have a twenty-one gun salute.

The service focused on David, God, love, family and all that is good about America. Open weeping continued throughout the rituals, except when the coffin was carried in by uniformed Navy men. Everyone fell silent as if on cue. The American flag was folded and presented to David’s wife, the twenty-one gun salute was performed, followed by a strong, slow sounding of Taps, which covered the weeping that had, by that time, started up again.

Throughout it all, I thought about Dave, our childhood milieu, and how his life had developed. He and I went to military service within a year of each other during our twentieth year, me in 1970 to the Air Force, and he in 1971, to the Navy. Two years later, I washed out, and he continued on toward distinguished service, SEAL training, and a decorated career that continued well beyond his twenty-year military commitment.
I tried to identify childhood markers or personality traits that could have predicted the opposite paths each of us had taken in the military.

David had always been an adventurous one, finding the excitement of the unknown worth the risk of consequences. Once, when we were children at his house, he wanted to play “doctor and nurse” with me. This is the game most kids played sooner or later in order to explore each other’s private parts under the pretences of innocence.

I refused to play not because I didn’t want to but because his mom was in the kitchen and might hear something. David persisted in his urging, and I persisted in my refusal, until our squabble reached his mom, who came into the room and scolded us.

I kept that memory to myself throughout the funeral gatherings, but other relatives recounted other memories in which David played the thrill-seeker, the risk-taker, the one drawn to  the excitement of the dangerous and/or the unknown. It must have been in his blood, more than in mine. All I ever wanted was to find a husband, love, be loved, do my art, read and write. My search never found its goal, except piecemeal, and sporadically, while his endeavors took him upon a constantly inclining track marked by money, honor, and the extremes of human capabilities.

I knew he had killed people during the course of his assignments as a SEAL. I knew he had won some sort of honor for shooting his way out of an ambush and saving his troops. I never wanted to know the details. He was my cousin Dave.

After the funeral, we all went over the his family’s house. I would have preferred to go back to the hotel straightaway, but my siblings insisted, so I studied the map, put the route in my head, and drove us to Dave’s house. Though we’d never been there, we knew Dave’s house as we approached it, not only by the clutter of cars but by the eight floral arrangements that had been set on tripod and planted in his front yard. Why had I waited until now to come visit my cousin Dave and his family? Why hadn’t I visited this house at least once during the previous ten years after which I’d repatriated to the United States? Now, this would be the first and last time I would do so.

Casseroles, fried chicken, sandwiches, salads, biscuits and cakes and more of everything fed the crowd that meandered in and out of the house. I noticed a young man wearing a hearing aid, and I wondered if he’d been a SEAL. I noticed another man wearing a left hand prosthesis. I wanted to talk to these men, to get a sense of what their lives had been like, what attitudes had shaped their actions, what quirks of upbringing or personality served them well in their military activities.  Most of all I wanted to ask them why their particular brand of service needed such extremes of action, risk, dedication, and ultimate sacrifice. Of course, I couldn’t talk to any of them about these things. I didn’t talk to them at all, except to say, “Would you please pass me a bottle of water?”

In the living room, I saw several photos of Davie’s son on horseback. His son owned three horses. My stomach turned with envy. I had never been blessed to own even one horse, and here was a fourteen year old boy with three. Living in Virginia, he was able to ride all the time because the winter never brought snow or ice or even very cold temperatures. I asked him if he ever needed help exercising those horses, and he said yes; if I lived close-by he’d let me ride them whenever I’d want. He didn’t want to talk about horses, however. He was more interested in the Italian side of his heritage, and looked at me in awe when I told him I’d been to Italy several times and met our distant relatives.

America is so big. Travel across it needs time and money, and yet American families continue to split themselves in ways that isolate members who should not be isolated.  My siblings and I stayed for three days, and then flew back home. By that time, articles and photos about David’s life and death started trickling into the Internet. One article claimed that he was helping in the effort to eradicate the poppies of the Afghan drug trade. That must have sounded thin even to readers who didn’t know his military career. Another article mentioned reconnaissance. Word of mouth suggested that he had been working on the disassembly of roadside bombs. Who knows? Maybe he worked on none of that.

I read everything I could find several times, and studied photos.. David had aged well, having kept himself fit and healthy, unlike me, who let myself go. Maybe if I’d lived closer to his family, I could have been riding his son’s horses all these years and stayed fitter and healthier. Virginia felt like a much more comfortable place to live than Wisconsin.

In the months following the funeral, I read books about SEAL training and memoirs written by SEALs. I saw my cousin Dave in every one of those authors, and I felt closer to him for having read those books. David had fulfilled himself in a way that many of us do not. He had developed his special talents, called upon his tremendous personal strength, and sought the means to put his entire life in service to a cause greater than himself. He was happy, and he always ready to answer a call. Every time he deployed for an overseas mission, he made sure his wife knew what to do in case he did not return.