Gathering For A Death
We gathered around my father during his final days, still hoping for an eleventh hour surprise…some subtle shift by which the fates would acknowledge our desperation and grant us a cosmic reprieve. As one relative after another arrived in the urgent care ward of the hospital… I began to realize that we were not the only sad cohort of beings gathering to watch our loved ones fade…waiting in impotent stupors for the last moments of an individual’s life to tick slowly by. This was a unique gathering place in which the barriers of social differentiation fell away…everyone came together under a single banner of impending loss…to do something that I would not have previously thought possible in a moment like this…to remember…and to tell.
Brothers, cousins, nieces and nephews all remembered my father…their deathbed narratives intertwining to form a picture of a man that I had not known to the depths through which I was experiencing him in those final moments of life. This is something we don’t find in other moments…the constant, driving pace of life bludgeoning our collective consciousness with a forgetfulness that disconnects us from the seminal aspects of our selves—aspects that don’t seem to emerge until this strange moment of gathering at the precipice of such macabre finality.
Two nights before my father’s departure, I sat with my cousin and we remembered. My father was a complex man that we saw through a veil of simplicity, as he wanted us to…so that he could be perceived as an innocuous, known commodity…while his hard exterior served as a shield and a test…a challenge to those who entered his space, so that he could determine the integrity of their approach. Like the Zen Keisaku, the awakening stick used by the hard masters to ensure presence of mind…my father’s ways of doing were intended to remedy lapses in concentration…his gruff growl so effectively remarking on the futility of Samsara, the endless chasing of fleeting pleasures in lieu of the truly worthwhile things.
He was living, breathing dualism. Though perceived as the simple, hard master by many…a man whose singular agency, it seemed, was to chastise the undisciplined…there were so many others that benefitted from his unconditional compassion…secretly aided in the darkest moments of their lives with no expectation of reciprocity or recompense. My cousin was one of the beneficiaries of my father’s special brand of compassion…and it was in this moment…during this coming together…that she shared the details of the abuses she had endured early in her life…the way she had struggled through seasons in which there was no light in her life. She shared with me how my father…this man that seemed so unapproachable…an incorrigible curmudgeon…served as her singular space of solace. Once she had spoken this truth into the world, others began to follow suit…independently coming to me so that I could bear witness to these sublime confessions.
He was a keen study of human nature. Having grown in a culture and tradition of reserved, measured, human discipline, his personal expression was limited to regimen codified within the strictest social parameters. Through such a lens, my father learned to see the human condition for what it was in its purest form…basic, primordial…understanding the difference between needs and wants. As I learned in the days leading up to his death, this understanding had enabled him to be a silent hero for many during their greatest personal adversities. While struggling through challenges they dared not share with others, so many individuals chose my father to be their guide…because he didn’t keep score…he counted no costs that came due at the end of the day.
It was in these fleeting moments that I really perceived the value of community…the value of facing hardship as a collective. It was then that I discovered the narratives of my father’s many quiet, compassionate interactions…learning just how much this man shared himself with so many people…with so little care for his own persona…even to the extent of curating the perfect disguise…the hard exterior masking a beauty betrayed only by the warm depths of his eyes.
These were the eyes I came to know through his greatest struggle… through the last, most painful moments of his life. Though he displayed commended bravery through blistering naval battles at sea, harrowing marine rescues and standing in the face of mortal threat, his most courageous moments occurred during a time of his greatest personal weakness. When the most insidious of illnesses took hold of and suppressed his physical self, my father’s real strength manifested in ways I can only hope to manifest. He never complained through the most gripping pain…never cried foul because of his lot…he only displayed acceptance. My father simply accepted the closing act of a life that he lived on his own terms, according to his own values. He owned his mistakes…and then embraced life’s fullest consequence.
The only thing my father asked me during this entire ordeal was for help in ending it. I remember sitting with him during a time he could barely vocalize his sentiment…nothing more than a faint whisper…but his intent burned through those fierce, deep, beautiful eyes.
As I sat with my father just hours before he left this world, we reflected on his life story in order to help the old sailor see the way forward on this next leg of his journey. Through all the sorrow and pain and grief that my mother and my family were experiencing in those final hours, I told my father his death narrative. I wiped his face with a cool cloth and told him to feel the sea spray on his face…looking up at the beautiful billowing sail catch the wind and propel him toward the distant horizon…to let the stars guide him as he maps his course under the clear night sky…sailing this final journey toward the far shore.