Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Death and Reconciliation

When I was a kid, I had a fairly rocky relationship with my parents, like most kids. My mother was the strict disciplinarian. My father would occasionally get really pissed off at me, but if I let him cool off he'd usually forgive and forget, so it was always better to get in trouble on his watch.

In my twenties, I carried a lot of baggage from my childhood - things that bugged me about my parents, reasons why they weren't the best parents ever, useless crap like that. Consequently, I would do things to punish them, and I would hold grudges. I even avoided my grandmother for a while because of something she allowed to happen, but that wasn't really her fault.

When I was about 28, I was living in San Francisco above a bookstore I quite liked called A Clean, Well-Lighted Place for books. They used to have book signings on a regular basis. I would go down and meet the authors and get books signed - I got one signed by Jon Carroll, for example. Sometimes I would buy books I might not have considered because I was curious to meet the author and wanted to have some idea of what they'd written first.

So it was that I bought a book about death. Not about what happens afterwards, mind you, but about how to think about life in the context of death. It was a very good book - the author told a lot of moving stories both from his own personal experience, and also from the experiences of people he'd talked to. He runs a number of hospices around the world, so this is a topic with which he has a great deal of experience.

The key point he made in his book that really connected for me is that everybody we know and love is dying. We pretend it's not so, because we love them, and we don't want them to die. And we ourselves are also dying, but of course that's also a difficult thing to face. Nevertheless, every time we say goodbye to a loved one, that may be the last time we say goodbye, whether because they die before we see them again, or because we die before we see them again.

It's not a fun thing to contemplate, but it's important to contemplate. Thinking this way, I decided that I needed to stop holding things against the people I loved, particularly my parents. At the time they were in reasonable health, but life doesn't come with any guarantees. Furthermore, I often have a bit of an involuntary brush with death when I get on an airplane, because the lack of control and the general freakiness of being in an environment where a serious failure, even though it's extremely unlikely, would almost certainly be fatal, reminds me of my place in the world: that I am mortal.

So I stopped holding grudges. I tried always to leave them without anything unsaid, without failing to express my love for them. I tried to stop saying unkind things to them. I tried to learn how to control my temper, which was pretty vicious.

I can't say that I was magically transformed into a good person overnight, but looking back on my behavior towards them in my twenties, the word that I think most aptly describes it is "asshole." Letting go of that behavior was a very pleasing thing for me, and I hope it was pleasing for them as well. Certainly our relationship improved.

I've been reminded of this time in my life because I was recently asked what I would do if I were in retreat, and were called to the bedside of a dying parent. This is a really terrible question. I've had to make decisions like it twice in my life - once when my aunt Mary died, and once when my father had a heart attack. Mary was already dead, and the question was whether I should rush to the funeral, or come out the next week to help with the aftermath. It was an easy choice, because either option was a good option.

In my father's case, the question was whether or not to get on an airplane that night, damn the cost, in hopes of seeing him before he had another heart attack if he should have one, or to assume he wasn't going to have one and just come out as soon as reasonably possible, without undertaking extreme expenditures. The decision made itself because he had another heart attack before we'd even decided, and went into surgery. So he wasn't going to be awake anyway if we flew out that night, and I don't think we could have anyway.

But the reason it's a terrible question is not because of the terrible choice I would have to make. It's because if we live our lives with the expectation that we will have some kind of deathbed reconciliation, we are kidding ourselves. Of all the people I've loved who have died, not one of them paid me the courtesy of waiting until I could get to their bedside.

My great grandfather died while I was fifteen hundred miles away, when I was either seven or twelve - I no longer remember which, but for some reason am convinced it was one of those numbers. My great grandmother died a few years later, the same way. These people were dear to me, but I was so young that I didn't know how to react - I cried, but I didn't really know what I was crying about. I was sad that they were gone, but didn't have any unfinished business with them.

My grandfather on my mother's side had a heart attack and died, and I was again 1500 miles away. It wasn't unexpected, but it wasn't expected either - he'd had a heart condition from childhood. He made a big difference to me in my life, and I never got to say goodbye, or to tell him how much I appreciated him.

My father's father died of an aneurysm while I was in California. Even the people who were in the house with him didn't get to say goodbye, because it was so sudden. It was really heartbreaking - it was so unexpected. As far as we'd known, he'd been in good health, and nobody anticipated that we'd lose him like that. He too made a big difference in my life, and I flatter myself that I learned some of his good qualities, and he went without me ever getting to say goodbye either. I think he knew I loved him, at least.

My mother had a stroke when she was visiting me out in California. One minute she was okay, the next she couldn't use half her body anymore, and she'd lost a lot of mental acuity. She's still my mom, and she's gotten back some of what she lost, but she still has trouble getting around and doesn't have the use of one hand. But at least she's here and I still have a chance with her.

My mother's brother died of a heart attack in his fifties, completely unexpectedly. I had a strained relationship with him, and I don't think there's much I could have done to mend it, but I was sorry to see him go, and sorry to see how his passing felt for my mother and my grandmother and her sisters.

My grandmother on my father's side passed away quietly in a nursing home. I made a point of going down to visit her in Florida as much as I could, and I think she appreciated that, but she always seemed so alone down there. It wasn't something I could do anything about without moving there, and I didn't want to move there. If I'd been any good at writing letters, that might have made a difference, but it's a habit I never acquired - I was too stubbornly attached to the future of communications—email—and focused on getting her to change instead of changing. But she got to meet Andrea, and she seemed happy for what was going on in the lives of her descendants, and she lived on her own terms, and I'm happy for that.

My aunt Mary died just as suddenly as her brother. It was an awful way to go, not that there's any good way. She was a bit eccentric, and that colored our relationship. I didn't visit her as much as I would have liked, because I had so many other people scattered about whom I needed to visit.

My grandmother on my mother's side died pretty unexpectedly, but she was quite old by then. I spoke with her before she passed, and we had what, in my life, would be the closest thing I can imagine to a deathbed reconciliation, mostly because she felt guilty about some things she'd said to me in the very difficult times after Mary passed. When I heard the news that she'd died, I was very glad we'd had that conversation, and I hope it eased her mind in some way.

I read the book I spoke of earlier, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, after my father's father died, but before the other events I've related that followed. There have been a lot of hard goodbyes since then. The older my parents get, the more it breaks my heart to say goodbye to them when Andrea and I leave for Arizona, or wherever's next. But I've at least tried to live by the attitude I learned from the book. When my father had his heart attack and his triple bypass, and we didn't know if he'd wake up again, it was pretty heart-rending, but when I tried to think if we had any unreconciled differences, I couldn't come up with any. We'd just had a nice visit for my parent's fiftieth anniversary.

So the point, if there is one, to this long rambling diatribe, is that I don't think deathbed goodbyes are something to plan on. If they happen, that's great, but what matters is what comes before, during the times when we are together, and as healthy as we can manage, and can enjoy each other's company without the grim spectre of death overshadowing our time together. The things that I regret are visits unvisited, not deathbeds unreached. The things that I take comfort in are the times we've had together, and for loved ones still present, the times we might still have.


Anonymous Mummy said...

Yours is really the first generation in which children leaving home had a reasonable expectation that they would ever see their families--including their parents--again.

My Grandfather Barefoot went to nurse a cousin through the "Spanish" flu, and, although his cousin survived, Grandpa had contracted that plague by the time he returned to his wife and children and died of it without seeing his parents.

More than one of my Grandmother Ann's brothers went West to seek their fortune during the Great Depression; their father had already died, but their mother was gone, too, by the time they returned.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son has always evoked in my mind the memory of one of those brothers, who had clearly been living rough for months, arriving at our farm in Justus and my grandmother flinging her arms around him and weeping as if her heart were broken.

And then, there's your Grandpa Ted, who left England for America in 1929: TransAtlantic voyages then were for the wealthy and for sailors--neither of which he was--so, while he probably hoped to strike it rich here, he must have known the likelihood of his ever seeing his parents again was minimal--and, in fact, he did not.

His story of his own father's taking the train to the south of England--where he was working at the time--to say "Goodbye" always touched me. "It was the first time I ever knew my father loved me," he would say.

Perhaps that was why he was so disappointed when his own children visited him so rarely in Florida, leaving him to make do with telephone calls--another blessing earlier generations, except, again, for the wealthy, either lacked or had limited access to.

Friday, August 21, 2009 4:34:00 PM  

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