The Things That Matter When You Die
Watching my father pass away taught me a lot about how to live
I'm watching my father die. It's rough. He's on morphine to deal with the pain. Sometimes he starts talking in Hebrew. He grew up in Israel but no one here speaks Hebrew.
He looked through a set of family photos today. He still looked proud when talking about how beautiful his wife was. "There's my model." "Here she was almost at the peak of her beauty." "I was astounded by how good her maternal instincts were." He keeps cracking jokes too. "Everybody else here looks so sad that I'm starting to think I should too."
He wanted a strawberry ice cream soda because he remembered that when he was a kid he used to love them. I went out and bought the ingredients and concocted one. He could barely get the straw into his mouth. But when he did, his eyes lit up. "Delicious!"
My sister, Tamara, and her 6 year-old son, Asher, are here too. My sister is amazing and strong throughout this entire process. We feel like warriors in battle together. One day we all decide to take a break and go for a hike near the ocean. I comment that it's beautiful. "No, it's not," says Asher. He is pissy today. I ask him, "Well what do YOU think is beautiful?" "The only things that are beautiful are Mommy and a rainbow."
My dad likes playing a game called Smartmouth with his Grandson. They each yell out words and are impressed by the other's ability to come up with surprising answers. They also both love Jeopardy and trains. He explained to his grandson why railroad tracks are built on stones. So they don't drown when it rains. The water needs somewhere to go. That's why the rocks are there – to raise up the tracks.
He still wants to take a bath. He loves taking baths. Always has. Would spend an hour in the tub every day. He'd bring a newspaper in there. But he's taken his final bath. The pain is excruciating. He can't get out of bed. They say the cancer is spreading "like wildfire." It is eating away at his bones. He wants to be out of pain. He wants drugs, even if means he can't think clearly.
He keeps thinking there is powder in his hands. "I want to put the powder in my tea." I get his mug of tea and place it under his hands. He dumps the invisible powder into the glass. He feels better. Later he offers me some powder. "It's for you." I take it. I carry away his invisible powder.
Earlier, when he was looking at the photos and he was beaming, it impacted me. I felt a glow. A power. Something I've only felt before while hallucinating. A strength of aura and presence. The glow of someone being while egos dissolve. He is a part of me and I a part of him.
I've never seen anyone die before. I was prepared for the sadness. The heartbreak. I wasn't prepared for the beauty. The purity. The clarity. The clear perspective. What matters is obvious.
When we asked him what he wanted to eat, he said, "Chocolate. Lots of it." At 2pm, he said he wanted to invite members of his song circle over to see him. At 8pm, the living room was full. Two dozen members of his song circle. They sang "Blue Moon" and "Amazing Grace" and "Country Roads" and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and more. They circled him and he sang along. Even though his mind is having a tough time, he remembered most of the words. Maybe lyrics reside in a different part of the brain. Not where the memories are, but where the melody is. Where the feeling is.
He is dying and it is sad but that is not all it is. There is a grace to him. He is trying to be brave. He is scared about what comes next. But he is more scared about staying here. The pain is too much. I told him that whatever happens next, I think it will be ok. He responds, "Me too."
There should be equal amounts laughter and tears, according to the death doctor. I don't feel sad all the time. Once in a while i cry. But mostly it seems alright. Like what's supposed to happen. It feels like a George Harrison song. Sad but beautiful and ok because it's the way things are supposed to go.
He's not eating anymore. He told us to understand if he doesn't want to fight anymore. He wants to let it happen. He is letting go.
When I help him drink through a straw or turn his body, it's the closest I've ever come to feeling like a parent. To taking care of a helpless human being. I feared it would be a burden but it doesn't feel that way. You don't even think about it. You do it because there is nothing else to do. And it makes me think about what you get in return for the act of caregiving.
The death doctor also says there are only four things that matter: Please forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you.
I keep thinking about those four things. My Dad expresses regret over not paying enough attention to his children. I tell him that I forgive him. And I ask him to forgive me for times when I've been a brat or hard on him. He grants me forgiveness. I tell him he was a good dad. I tell him his life had meaning and purpose. I thank him. I tell him I love him. I tell him I am proud of him. I'm proud that he is my dad. He says that he is proud that I am his son. I'm crying as I write this. I say what I need to say to him.
He wants to watch Jeopardy still. He used to shout out the answers. Now he just lies there and watches. Every once in a while he laughs. I hear the laugh from the other room sometimes and for a split second I feel like everything is fine. I've always heard that laugh. It bellows. But the moment passes and I recall that the laugh is vestigial. It's residue. Like the warm coals left after a fire.
He is less able to communicate. You can see it frustrates him. He spent is entire life stone cold sober. Maybe a Tom Collins every few weeks, but that was it. And now he's high as a kite on an insane amount of morphine and methadone. He is helpless. He asks me to sit next to him more. He said when I'm there he feels braver. Every day I'm there, I tell him I love him. And I say thank you. And I tell him he was a good parent.
The health care worker last night told him he had a beautiful house and that his wife was lucky. His response: "No, I was the lucky one."
I just learned today that he was on a show called Quiz Kids when he was a teenager. It was on the radio. He won. Even when you think you know it all about someone, there are more layers to peel away.
We are watching March Madness games. Well, they're on the TV and I am watching them and he is staring at them. I remember watching that classic Duke-Kentucky game years ago with him. The one where Christian Laettner made an amazing last second shot. I hate Duke but we both wound up jumping up and down and yelling about what an amazing shot it was.
Now here we are decades later. And it makes me think about sports and why they matter. I remember my dad driving me to AYSO soccer games every Sunday when I was a kid. I remember the drives to far away towns. And I remember him taking me to Friendly's after the game where I'd get a burger or an ice cream sundae.
And i think about when he would take me to see the Yankees. My favorite part was walking through the concrete tunnels on the way to our seats and seeing the glimpses of grass through each gate. That feeling of anticipation sticks with me more than the actual games. He couldn't care less about baseball. Sometimes he'd bring the paper and read it while I watched the game. But he'd go because he knew I loved it. And because it let us spend time together. Maybe the holy part of sports is how it brings fathers and sons together. A reason to connect. The way strangers talk about the weather.
At 3am one night, he begins battling the caregiver trying to change his sheets. She comes to get me. I sit by his side. He is out of it. He tells me he won't let her do it because she doesn't really want to do it. I explain it is her job. He does not relent. I sit by him. We talk. At some point he starts singing the chorus to "You Can't Always Get What You Want." I join him. Damn, I love the Stones. And I think about the music that was in our house when I was growing up. I start crying. And I say, "Thank you for exposing me to art. I grew up in a house with people who loved art and I am so thankful for that." It's true. The music from the speakers, the books on the shelves, the movies we'd watch. They are the reason I see the world the way I do. I remember being a little kid thinking my parents were weird when they would sing along to Bob Dylan. Now I listen to Blonde and Blonde and am mesmerized by how the words dance.
This process is such a stripping away. On a primal level, you see what matters. He has reverted to his mother tongue. He wants to see faces that he recognizes. He wants to sing songs he remembers. He wants his family next to him. Even when he doesn't understand what is happening, he looks at us and trusts us to do what's best for him. He's not hungry but he says he'll eat if we join him. Dining together matters to him. We always ate dinner together as a family. He likes to be touched. Whenever a woman goes to kiss him, he puckers up his lips and leans in for a smooch. He is floating away but simple things like these are the gravity that pull him back.
Every hour, he gets asked this question: How much pain are you in from 1-10? 10 is the most pain. 1 is no pain. The idea is to get his pain to a manageable level. If he's at a 6 or higher, he gets more morphine. The problem with that is he gets so zonked out that he's not even lucid anymore. Understandably, he's chosen to be pain-free over lucid. What a question though: Do you want to minimize your pain for the sake of mental clarity? What will you sacrifice to get to 2? What are the benefits you get from enduring at 7? I think about the choices we all make every day to numb our pain. What is pain and what is just the price of being aware? When are you broken and when are you just feeling?
We spend a fun day together despite his condition. We look through family photo albums. We listen to Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. We watch The Sting and a Marx Brothers movie. I remember him showing me Marx Brothers movies when I was a little kid. And watching Steven Wright standup specials. He loved to laugh. It was my first exposure to comedy and the joy it could bring.
During the Cohen album, my Dad says, "He has such contempt for ships and shoes." I have no idea what this means. I say, "Really?" "Of course, listen to the lyrics." Alrighty then. I ask my Dad what he has contempt for. He pauses. "A shallow, meaningless life." I think he's talking about himself now. I decide to change the subject. "And what do you love?" I ask. Another pause. "Country." "You mean America?" "Yes." "Why?" "Because it gave the rest of the world hope." It takes an outsider to appreciate things sometime. He loves America more than most people born here. I think of the fervor of born again types. How not having something at first makes you love it even more when you do find it. He's that way with America. So many Americans take it for granted. He does not. His love for America is not a flag pin kind of love. It is the type of love that is so strong you don't even talk about it.
Things keep breaking around the house. The dishwasher stopped working the other night. It's closed but it doesn't think it's closed so it won't start. The garage door won't stay down. We had to unplug it in the closed position. The TV remote seems to have gone haywire too. You push channel up and it instantly starts scrolling through all the channels, like there's a madman at the helm. As his body shuts down, all his appliances are giving up the ghost too.
He weakens further. The end is near. I told him that he lived the American dream: He saw America in movies and decided to come here. He arrived and experienced Greenwich Village in the 60s. He knew no one in the US yet rose up the ladder through hard work. He became a prosecutor and put away the bad guys. He met an amazing woman. He settled down in the suburbs and had children that he loved. He built elaborate model railroad tracks in the basement. He watched Jeopardy every night. And then he retired to a house on the north coast of California with a beautiful view. What more could you ask for? I told him he had done well and lived a real fucking life. And then I kissed him on the forehead and said goodbye. He said ok and smiled. He looked weak and more beautiful than I'd ever seen him.
He's dead now. But it's ok. He had a good run. And today he'll be buried next to Mom, near the Redwoods and the ocean. His friends will gather and sing Amazing Grace. That was his favorite song.
I'm so grateful for this past week. I'll never forget it. And I keep thinking about those four things: Please forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you.