On Death and Acceptance

Last month I wrote a column about the way we all used to tan so madly, all heedless of the consequences.  It was a humorous piece, or so I thought – until, this email about skin cancer arrived from a reader:

“Parents and middle-aged adults can quip about how fun it was to tan, or do all the stupid things we did as kids and then ask coyly how we made it this far. The answer is that those who didn’t make it aren’t here to write an article.”

Her words led me through many long corridors of regret and ended by bringing me to this memory: of an essay someone wrote for a class I once taught in which he described the final days of his robust 40-something son, who died of this disease, leaving his own young family to live on without him. The slightly shortened piece appears here below:

Our son’s death was a sledge-blow, but from the gentle way he told us of his diagnosis until those final days he lived his time with grace.

He had no illusions about his illness. He recognized that this sudden ambush attack by a cancer of unknown origin had made his body a battleground.

Doctors hoped he would have a few weeks of relative ease, and though his body lost the battle in a matter of days, his spirit remained undaunted. 

“It’s a good day to die,” he told us on one of those days. “‘I have just seen my beautiful place and I want to go there.’

We knew he would, because anything he ever wanted he worked for, and he was working for this.

There were important papers to be gotten together which would require his signature. If we worked all night, we saw that we just might have them ready. We asked him if he could hold on and he said, “I will wait.”

On the road home that night, we received a call from his sister, herself an RN who had been in constant attendance. She said we should come back. Then our son insisted she hand him the phone  and his voice came clear through the night:

“Mom. Dad. Don’t rush back. Don’t do any more work. We’ve said our good-byes. Remember when the children came in? Have you ever seen such a day?  I love them! And I know you love me. Good-bye!”

We cried.

Then his sister had the phone again.  We talked it over there in the dark and decided maybe it wasn’t yet ‘a good day to die.’ So we kept on, collected what we needed, and gave it to the lawyer who worked all night. The next morning we presented the papers to Scott. Propped up with pillows, he signed them with a barely legible signature.

He and his mother talked for the last time. Then he smiled at her and said, ‘Night ‘night, Mom,’ reminding her that, as in childhood, he felt loved and unafraid as he went to sleep.

When it was my turn, I told him I only wished I could have been as good a father as he was. He asked me to kiss him. As I bent down to his bed, he squeezed my hand, smiled, and said, ‘On the mouth, Dad.’

Then something wonderful happened: As we held each other, a great clear aura of love filled the room. There seemed to be no furniture, nothing physical at all, and I saw that all the love he would have shown had he lived was now here, to be felt and used by us all.

 That love has already bound our family closer together, given us more understanding and more consideration. As John Lennon wrote, ‘All you need is love.’  Love is here for us all. Believe it , feel it, use it and add to it from your own stores.”

My thanks go here both to the wise reader who led me back to this story and to the brave grieving father who first set it down.

Death in December (Lighting Their Way)

parents cradling their newbornOn this one-week anniversary of the killings in Newtown comes this  last meditation, which appeared all  around the country as my column for the week. Peace of mind and rest to us all on this day of Solstice. From here on, more and more light, we pray…

The weather has been warm for December, though the lilacs are huddled down in my yard as if bracing themselves for what New England has taught them to expect of winter.

At this time of year, all growing things bow earthward, their heads tucked under their wings, so to speak, in preparation for the assault of killing cold.

Yet still the assault has held off. The other day the air felt so moist and forgiving the branches of the forsythia began swelling into life.

It reminded me of a winter day like this when our friends welcomed a baby into the world.

The delivery had been normal, and the child was a beauty. All seemed well – until his color changed a few hours after the birth.

He was X-rayed and CAT-scanned, hurriedly placed beneath the microscope of modern medicine. It turned out his heart had not developed properly—not in the early months when Nature means for a heart to grow whole—and not later either.

He could not live, our friends were told. He might not last the night. His small pump of a heart could not sustain the effort necessary to keep him alive, the doctors said.

But this is not just a story of loss.

It is a story of love, and what love can do.

The baby lived four days. His mother kept him in her room at the hospital. Grandparents arrived from out of state, and his two-year-old brother was brought in to meet him.

They rocked and talked to their child. They greeted him like any family would greet it new­est member.  They said,  “Here you are, finally!” They said, “It’s us: the ones you have been given to!”

They held him and said their hellos. They held him and said their good-byes.

They took the short time given them to love this child, and  put it to good use.

Without ac­knowledging the darkness ahead, they sunned him in the light of their love and it was easy for them to do so.

Why?

Because he was here today. Because that’s the most any of us can be sure of: that we’re here now, for a while, to carve out a bright place in the surrounding darkness. To connect with one another, just as these grieving families in Newtown are doing now.

Like that doomed newborn, their children surely had felt love in their time here. And I don’t doubt that in the place where they now reside, they hold in their immortal souls the memory of how rich a thing it is to dwell upon this earth.

It is a memory given them by their families and their community,  families and a community dissolved now in grief.

To bury a child is a crime against nature, they say, a cruel twisting of the natural order.

It can only feel strange and unnatural, like warmth of days on winter’s threshold.

But winter is winter and death is death. Children do die, and the earth dies too and the grass turns to brown. The book of our lives is shot through with sad chap­ters such as these.

Yet death is not the story’s title. And death is not the chapter’s close.

It’s what is done in the face of death that makes the tale worth reading. It’s forsythia buds swelling in December. Or people like the parents we grieve with this week, lighting their children’s way, with their candles and their prayers.

Son of This Town

I was writing along quietly when I heard the choppers overhead. Then here came an email from my neighbor Linda to ask if anyone wanted to join her in watching the funeral procession pass. It had slipped my mind entirely that this was the funeral day for Navy Seal Glen Doherty, whose life was lost in the attack in Benghazi, Libya just one week ago, when angry protesters stormed the U.S. consulate.

Ambassador Chris Stevens and two others also perished.

Glen was a child of this town, and the town turned out to honor his memory.

I wish I had captured more pictures, but how could I snap the hearse going by, and the limousine holding the immediately bereaved?

I looked, and then I had to look away.

I thought of at least taking pictures of all the students at Winchester High lining the streets to honor the passing of this their predecessor by a quarter of a century but I didn’t have the heart for that either. In the end I only took this picture of them as they filed back into the school, the American flags they were holding now tucked away again.

The,n ten minutes later, when the choppers had moved west into the hills to hover over St. Eulalia’s where the Funeral Mass was being said, I crossed the street and took this photo, out behind the town’s Senior Center. It could almost be May, couldn’t it, for how verdant the landscape still looks.

The green won’t last, as the little squirrel also captured here well knows. Alas, we are all on Time’s escalator going down.

As the clock sounded the 11th hour, I thought of John Donne’s “Send not to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.”

It tolled yesterday for 42-year-old Glen Doherty, who I remember as part of Coach Tremblay’s Wrestling Squad when he was a boy and life, and fatherhood, and service to the nation were all still before him.