end of life

pinhole trio, 1990

On Wednesday, July 3, 2019, my non-ambulatory father climbed out of bed, stumbled to the closet to get a pair of pants, and fell onto the carpeted floor. My daughter and I picked him up and sat him down; his lips were blue, and he was shaken. My mother asked whether or not he wanted to go to the hospital, and, instead of his usual fierce protest to that inquiry, he said, “Yes.” I rode in the ambulance with him to the hospital, and, after X-rays, CT scans, and CAT scans, my father was diagnosed with a spinal compression fracture and began experiencing an “air hunger” that puzzled the doctors. Oxygen, lorazepam, and morphine calmed his intermittent pain and restlessness, and he came home in an ambulance on Saturday, July 6 to hospice. He died peacefully the following evening and was buried at a graveside service on Wednesday, July 10.

My brother, Scott, wrote the following speech in Boston the night my father died. He was up all night searching for flights and thinking. He delivered these remarks at my father’s funeral.

I used to think that life, as sweet as it can be in so many ways, had an inherent cruelty. People are socially conditioned, and maybe even biologically predisposed, to mate, to partner, to find a cherished love and then hold tenaciously onto that love. With that love, people find comfort, protection, and incredibly deep meaning. And then, in the end, with death, the person loved, depended on, bonded with, and with whom so much meaning is found, is simply torn away.  That always seemed like such a cruel twist.

I’ve been reflecting on this since I received the phone call that, for the past couple of years, I knew was coming and was dreading, telling me that my Dad had died. And in that reflection, what I realize, what I feel, is that, even with his passing, there’s no emptiness. In fact, right now, I feel more love, more life, more deep meaning from him than I ever thought was possible. He remains, he lingers, he continues to enrich me and everyone who got to know him and get close to him.

My Dad’s life with us was a gift. He was our second chance when my mother re-married. They met, and it was an instant love with a short, fairy-tale like courtship that culminated in fifty-five years of building an extraordinary life together.

The first few years couldn’t have been easy for him, because this marriage came with two boys, five and six years old, and, even though we were complete angels, we naturally tested him with several rites of initiation. The first was what I like to call the “Trial by Toilet flushing”; he had taken our new family to a fancy restaurant, where my brother and I discovered the novelty of floor pedal toilet flushers in the men’s room. I still recall that it was like Disneyland in that bathroom, as we ran like whirling dervishes from toilet stall to toilet stall, using our feet to flush the toilets over and over again, while skillfully escaping my father’s exhaustive efforts to corral us and get us back to the dinner table. Then there was the “Trial by ‘Hey I’m 6, and I’m sure I can drive,’” in which I, being told to stay in the car while my Dad and my brother ran into a take-out joint, gave into my natural curiosity and discovered what happens when a car is put in reverse on a steep hill. I’m happy to say that he passed these tests, and instead of questioning what he had gotten himself into, he just loved us more deeply.

After that, and maybe a few other things we had up our sleeves, it became clear to my brother and I that we had found a keeper, someone exceptional.

I don’t think that my Dad would have characterized himself or his life as exceptional. I think he saw himself as an underdog and at times felt himself to be a victim; and he was sometimes angered and frustrated by that. But, through the fifty-five years of his life that I had the privilege of witnessing, I saw a man who was righteous, fair, loyal to a fault, selfless, protective, explosively proud of his family, and unashamed to show each and every one of us the deep love that he felt. 

This isn’t to say that my Dad didn’t do exceptional things. He worked hard to raise a family, went to night school to finish his bachelor’s degree, and even plodded on in law school at night, almost to completion. He actually loved the law and, as an honorable man, he had a deep respect for it and for always doing (or trying to do) the right thing. In his later years, he became an avid letter writer to the Times when he felt that politicians were violating the sanctity of that law. He was an avid reader, sharp as a whip, funny and fun loving, and extremely articulate.

He had a few other stunning achievements as well, like bringing my wonderful sister into this world who blessed us with my incredible niece, embracing my brother and the family he brought to us from his marriage, and pushing all of his children hard to become the very best that they could be, and then relishing with pride over what we had all become, and giving my mother a deep love, an exceptional love, a love that is rare and enviable.

My father’s ability to love was one of his most remarkable traits, and I think that he would have been proud to have us remember this about him, because his love, his compassion, came from one of the most gentle, caring hearts I have ever encountered. It was this trait that made a deep, indelible impact on all of our lives.

So I am rethinking my long held view about the bitter irony inherent in needing to love, only to be torn asunder by death, because, even though we may have only had a fleeting moment with my Dad, it was an amazing moment that will last beyond a lifetime. We were the lucky ones; we got to know him, love him, and learn from him. And best of all, we got to call him Dad.