What can Dad’s walk toward death teach us about living?
Thirteen years ago, as Dad lay dying, I watched the otters play in Monterey Bay and monarch butterflies fly around the bushes just outside his living room window.
Leaving my brother and the Hospice workers with Dad, I walked along the shore to the neighborhood coffee shop in the early morning hours of Monday, October 1, 2001. While waiting for my latte, I noticed a brochure for Reiki treatments by Wendy Cohen. I’d undergone this Japanese treatment before when a practitioner laid her hands over my body and filled me with renewed life force. I had found it more energetically powerful than a massage, and it felt like intercessory prayer. I wanted a Reiki session for Dad to ease his death process and for me as I supported his journey to and following death.
I immediately called Wendy. She was busy that morning but promised to check back in a few hours.
Wendy called mid-afternoon to say she was coming. By that time Dad was actively dying.
“Do you want me to come anyway?” she asked.
A few minutes later, in walked a stranger dressed in a mini skirt and Harley Davidson jacket, holding a bright red basket filled with little bottles of flower vibrational essences. Wendy silently took her place among the small group that circled Dad’s bed.
As soon as Wendy’s hands hovered over Dad’s feet, my hands touching his face felt his energy soften. His breathing slowed, and my heart melted. Two minutes later, his spirit gently slipped out of his body. His final letting go.
When family gathered for Dad’s funeral a week later, his casket lay in St. Mary’s by the Sea Episcopal Church, a church he’d attended only for funerals and weddings. Draped over his coffin was a cloth of bright red, orange and green—the tablecloth Mom had completed for our Christmas, days before she died.
I touched his coffin on my way to the pulpit to preach his funeral sermon.
As ended my sermon, I said, “Dad died in the living room of his home, where Mom died fifteen years ago. This tired old body he left behind is here in the same church
where Mom’s funeral was held and is now covered by the same cloth that covered her casket. And our family will again use the tablecloth to cover the family table when we gather to feast together knowing that we are encircled with the spirit of Ed and Sue. … God, ‘give to us now your grace, that as we shrink before the mystery of death, we may see the light of eternity.’ ” *
On September 11, 2001, Dad began his three-week walk toward death. Simultaneously, hijacked planes crashed into buildings that epitomized US economic, military and governmental power.
For a moment Americans came together in grief, but within days we shifted to talk of war and patriotic pride. As a result, thousands more have died in our unwinnable battles. In contrast, Dad responded with an open heart and lived even as he died.
Though Dad was an in-control man for most of his life, his heart had softened fifteen years earlier after Mom died. We’d grieved together, cried together and talked about her often. But my heart broke open even more as I watched Dad let go into his death. He taught me many things about life while dying.
- Look around, even when things are falling apart. Butterflies and otters, flowers and clouds remind us that there is a bigger picture that surrounds the crisis at hand. Connecting with nature can keep us grounded.
- Expect help to come from all directions. Sometimes it comes from predictable sources: family or hospice workers. Yet sometimes it arrives in a miniskirt and leather jacket, bearing a red basket of love. We never know. But before help will be given, you must be open to the unexpected and say, “Yes, please come.”
- Gather together. The table of Life is spread and covered with a beautiful cloth. Sometimes that cloth covers a casket and it is time to grieve, cry, and remember. Let your heart break. If we don’t stop and give space to our hurting hearts, we can’t fully be present to joy and celebration either. For holidays such as Thanksgiving or Christmas, this bright cloth covers our feast laden dining table. Last month, our celebration was the wedding of my son Paul to Lauren and, thus, the cloth adorned the table joining our two families. When time is held for both grieving and celebrating, gifts are offered abundantly.
Whether we are faced with exploding planes or a terminal illness, how we respond matters. We are not alone. There are more possibilities than we can imagine. If we’ll keep walking with open hearts, dancing or crying or shouting in the midst of it all—anything except running away or knee-jerk reacting—we just might discover that Life is offered abundantly far richer than we can ask or imagine.
* Excerpted from my book, Big Topics at Midnight: A Texas Girl Wakes Up to Race, Class, Gender and Herself, pg 143-145. Final words are from ”A Service of Death and Resurrection,” in The United Methodist Hymnal (Tennessee: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1969), 871
Fourth in the series about living while dying.