Dad's Soft Death: A Hard Lesson Learned

05/15/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

My Dad had a soft death. He died in his own bed. He just sort of came easily undone. He was surrounded by his wife and friends. His physician was Dr. Bart, a neighbor who lived across the street. He would stop by every day after work to see how dad was doing. Dr. Bart calmly explained the stages of decline my Dad was likely to experience from his lung cancer. This knowledge helped my father dispel fears of unbearable pain or sudden loss of control. During the last 24 hours of his life, family and friends gathered; his favorite music and poetry were played and read.

After my Dad's memorial service, I went to visit Dr. Bart. He mentioned that Dad had died peacefully and without signs of discomfort or struggle. Dr. Bart smiled at me and said "This may sound strange but your dad had a good death." I was relieved to hear this but kept feeling that underneath his smile was his unasked question, "Why weren't you there?"

I had blown it completely. I was working and out of the country and the messages of Dad's eminent passing never reached me. I felt terrible about not showing up but I had a plan to make it all ok again. I would fulfill his final wish.

Mom had died suddenly nine years earlier. My parents often took trips into the Southern California mountains and deserts. My parents loved nature. My Mom said she drew inspiration from the desert, but Dad loved the view from mountain tops. The last trip Dad and Mom took together was about a week before she died. They had spent several days hiking the trails of Joshua Tree National Park in the southern part of the great Mojave.

As Mom and Dad were walking she spotted a dark red limestone formation that looked to her like a mother holding a child in her arms. She pointed this out to Dad who immediately named the rocks "Earth Mother." A month later Dad spread her ashes at the base of those red rocks. Dad's final request to me was to place his ashes with Mom's. Shortly after his death, I received a small metal urn with Dad's ashes.

I knew what I needed to do and it seemed simple enough; find "Earth Mother." Years earlier Dad had driven me out to Joshua Tree and pointed out the specific place. I remember walking up to the rocks and spotting several small bone fragments, which I assumed were my mother's. The bleached bones contrasted against the dark red rock were beautiful and the sight sent a shiver through me.

Anna, my girlfriend, and I drove up from San Diego. We arrived at Joshua Tree at high noon, mid-August, with the thermometer reading 118. Anna and I carefully followed Dad's hand drawn map. We were alone walking up the trail; no one else was insane enough to be walking around at this time of day. I was confident that we could find the rocks and return to the coolness of our air conditioned car in half an hour.

Seven years had elapsed since Dad and I walked this path together. I went up and down the trail looking for "Earth Mother." I couldn't find her. As my heart began to race my movements became more frantic.The only thing I could hear was Dad's disappointed voice. I was failing to fulfill his final wish. I was the incompetent son incapable of fulfilling the simplest of requests. I must have looked like a berserk robot tramping up and down the same path. After an hour of this, Anna grabbed my arm and begged me to stop. She wanted both of us to return to the car. She worried that I had gone crazy in the heat. I told her to please go to the car and turn on the air-conditioning. I promised to return shortly.

Now I was alone, dehydrated, and filled with despair. I was paralyzed by the ghost voice of my father. I curled up under the nearest Joshua Tree. I was too hot to continue and too terrified to call it quits. I dug my hands into the earth. It felt cool below the surface and feeling the earth calmed me down. I lay still for some time. The screaming in my head began to quiet. For the first time I became aware of the desert stillness. Something new was stirring. Then I felt, rather than heard, a softer voice saying, "Dad is gone. Honor his spirit not his words."

For the first time I began to look around and see things as they were. A rocky brown mountain loomed ahead of me. I began to climb. At the summit I saw a dark blue lake below. It was the Salton Sea. The sunlight refracted off the water's surface. The lake sparkled so brightly I looked away. As I glanced around, I realized that there was a small cave near my left hand. I took the urn opened it and spread his ashes inside the cave. I realized that the mountain summit with the sapphire sea below was the spot to honor my father.

Three hard lessons learned from that overheated day:

  • I can't find anything including my own belly button when my head is filled with screaming voices.

  • To find presence of mind I must learn to quiet those voices by listening, looking, and connecting to where I actually am now.
  • Winds swirl, sands shift, and winter downpours constantly reshape the landscape. Nothing ever stays the same.