I wrote the following piece the day after my father died four years ago. This brief post is dedicated to everyone whose father is still alive. No matter what your relationship to him is, how cantankerous, critical or old school he might be, know this: His days are numbered. Time is passing. He won't be here forever. So, while he's still alive, love him as best you can.
There is a time of life when the time of life is about to end -- the time of last breaths, the time of saying goodbye to everything you have ever known or loved, the time of letting go. This is the time my father now finds himself in.
He is flat on his back in a hospital bed, but the hospital bed is in his bedroom in West Palm Beach which is where he has chosen to die -- and will.
There will be no more calls to 911, no more paramedics, no more blood transfusions, no more needles, pills or tests. This is his death bed and we are around it, me, his son -- his daughter, my sister -- my wife, his daughter-in-law -- grandchildren, great grandchildren and the ever-present hospice nurse here to keep him as comfortable as possible.
His mouth is dry. He cannot swallow. Someone swabs his lips as he gathers what's left of his strength to move his tongue toward the precious few drops of water. The sound track for his last night on Earth is an oxygen machine pumping purified air through transparent tubes clipped to the end of his nose. On the counter -- creams. Creams for this and creams for that and creams for the other thing, too. I've never seen so many creams.
Those of us around his bed are very still, holding his hand, rubbing his back, looking at him and each other in ways we have never looked before.
There is very little for my father to do but breathe. This lion of a man whose life was defined by ferocity and action is barely moving now. A turn of the head. A flutter of the eye. A twitch. Though his eyes are closed, I know he can hear, so I bend closer and talk into his good, right ear. I tell him he's done a good job and that all of us will be OK. I tell him I love him and to go to the light. I tell him everything is fine and he can let go.
The hospice nurse is monitoring his vital signs. They keep getting lower and lower. I touch my father's cheek and it is cooler than before. His skin looks translucent. Almost like a baby's. He opens his eyes and shuts them once again. None of us around him know what to do, but that's OK because it's clear there is nothing to do.
Being is the only thing that's happening here.
My father had his last shot of morphine about an hour ago. He had his last bowl of Cheerios yesterday at 10 a.m.. Cheerios and half of a sliced banana. That was the last time he could swallow.
It is quiet in the room. Very quiet.
I see my sister, my nieces, my wife, the nurse. All of us are as helpless as my father. The only difference is we are standing.
If only we could pay as much attention to the living as we do to the dying. If only we could stop long enough from whatever occupies our time and truly care for each other, aware of just how precious each breath is, each word, each touch, each glance.
Sitting by my father's side, I am hyper-aware of everyone who enters the room -- the way they approach his bed, what they say, how they say it, the look on their face, their thoughts. I want to be this conscious all the time, attuned to the impact I have on others in everything I do. It all matters.
Nothing has prepared us for this moment. Not the books on death and dying, not the stories of friends who's fathers have gone before. Not the sage counsel of the Rabbi. Nothing.
One thing is clear. Each of us will get our turn. Our bodies, like rusty old cars gone beyond their warranties, will wear out. Friends and family will gather by our side, speak in hushed tones, hold our hands and ask if we are comfortable.
That's just the way it is. It begins with a breath, the first -- and ends with a breath, the last.
In between? A length of time. A span of years. A hyphen, as my teacher likes to say, between birth and death.
What this hyphenated experience will be is totally up to us. Will it be filled with kindness? Love? Compassion? Gratitude? Giving? Delight? Will we be there for each other before it's time to fill out the forms and watch the body -- strapped to a stretcher by two men in black suits -- be driven away like something repossessed?
I hope so. I really do. I hope we all choose wisely. I hope beyond a shadow of a doubt before we walk through the shadow in the valley of death that we choose to hold each others' hands NOW, rub each others' backs, bring each other tea, and listen from the heart with the same kind of infinite tenderness we too often reserve only for those about to depart.
My father is very quiet now, breathing only every 20 seconds or so. Or should I say breathed for?
And then... there is nothing. Only silence. No breaths come. No slight changes of expression on his face. No whispered words of love. We, around his bed, are in his home, but he is somewhere else.
Bye bye Daddy! Travel well! Know that we love you and will keep the flame of who are deeply alive in our hearts. Thank you for everything. We will meet again. Amen!
Mitch Ditkoff is the Co-Founder and President of Idea Champions, an innovation consulting and training company headquartered in Woodstock, NY. He is also a father. Jesse is 19 and a second year student at Hampshire College. Mimi is 16 and a Junior at Onteora High School. He loves them both very much.
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