Friday, November 03, 2006

Living Well, Dying Well

As you have sensitively gathered, I have spent this past month in the actual saying goodbye to my daddy, rather than in the reporting and reflecting on it. Thank you all for your plentiful love and prayer for me and my family in this journey. It means more to us than we can possibly convey. That “great cloud” so beautifully described in Scripture has encompassed us in the most comforting witness of love, and we are grateful to you for being a part of it.

Now the right time has come to write again.

My father died as he lived: with dignity and grace. Largely incommunicative during his last three weeks, his presence nevertheless centered us, just as it always had. Unable to tell the stories that have so profoundly ordered our lives, our way of living, we told them for him. Unable to express the sweet affection he always had for his wife and four boys, we tried our best to find that voice in his stead, to replicate that quality of love for him and for each other.

I don’t think I have ever known a man whose impulses of hospitality were so instinctive. He drew you to him, told you convincingly that you belonged, that you had a place. Even the Hospice nurses, whose familiarity with dying and all its hard and holy stages is a daily one, were drawn to Dad. Once, having driven in late from Atlanta, I arrived at the Hospice residence around midnight, and opened the door to my daddy’s room to find a young nurse quarter my daddy’s age bending over him, caressing his forehead. She looked up through moist eyes, and said, “He is such a sweet man.” She was not working, it was not her shift. She simply came by to commune with this sweetness.

Indeed, there was a holiness all around Dad in those last days, an invisible field of sacred energy. You just wanted to be there in that sanctuary with him. Was he praying? Was he remembering? Was he listening to someone else we could not hear? Was he here or somewhere else? We entered this space fearfully and wonderfully. I’ve never known a stillness like this. Dad’s breath was so slight and soundless, and the whole world so reduced and clarified and refined.

About a week or so before Dad died we were together in one of these reveries, when all of a sudden the cloud of unknowing parted. Dad looked up at me with those clear blue eyes that had sparkled with delight for so long and with such abundant pleasure, and said, “Hey boy!” just as he had so many countless times before. The recognition only lasted for a second, then receded back into the neurological fog. But it was more than enough.

A father gives a son one last blessing of belonging before the ship sets sail.