Some of life's transitions are more filled with sorrow than others. Recently, I lost my father after a three year battle with cancer. He died at his home peacefully with my mom and me by his side. I watched him exhale his last breath, just as he watched me inhale my first breath. It was circular, and meaningful, and as beautiful as a death could possibly be.
Still, I am sad to find myself in this passageway between life with my father and life without him.
Death is a transition both for those dying and for those left behind.
I happen to believe there is life after life. I have no idea what it feels like or about any of the specifics, but I have learned that the amount of mater in the universe is fixed. It does not disappear, it breaks down and transmutes into a new form. So while whatever life he has found on the other side of this transition is beyond my comprehension, my belief that nothing truly ends has been of great comfort to me.
Something else has been a comfort to me; my passion and interest in the art of transition. In my previous post on the birth of my son I broke down the three stages of transition as I conceptualize them; Preparation, Culminating Event, and Acclimation.
Sometimes the intellectualization of a life process helps us gain footing in an emotional sea. I would therefor like to take a second to breakdown my father's death into this same model. I can not know what it was like for him, and so I am not exploring his experience of the transition, but my own.
Those of you who have experience with a terminal diagnosis know that it is very rare for doctors to give you any sort of solid prognosis. We live in a world very focused on keeping the terminally ill alive for as long as possible and no one wants to admit to a person that the time has come to say goodbye. In our case, multiple treatments were available and we started out fairly optimistic that one of them might cure his cancer entirely. However as time went on, it became clear that the treatments were making his quality of life much much worse. My dad, forever an entrepreneur, did not see it this way and kept on trying to heal.
It was painful to watch his process. But in retrospect, it was a gift my father gave me...I was continually called to hope. It prepared me to practice hope even now, in the midst of despair. My dad never gave up. Even in those final hours on hospice care, he never said "goodbye". A large part of me wished he would, but now I realize it was simply not in his nature. He was not a quitter.
However, in those years of fighting I was also quietly preparing for his death. I worked with death and dying as part of my graduate studies and I volunteered with hospice. I was getting ready to face the inevitable loss by moving towards and pushing myself to look deeply at my own beliefs. I also have to admit that I pulled away. I unknit my father from my daily life as a way of preparing for life without him. Although this is natural and I felt him simultaneously pull away from me, it is not something I am proud of.
There was one other very important way in which I prepared. I had a baby. I wanted desperately for my father to feel his own importance and the continuation of his love. I would have wanted a baby anyway, but the desire for him to see his grandchild was deep and strong. His grandson, named after his family, was in his arms during his last lucid moments and that will forever be something I cherish.
During the preparation phase of the transition my thoughts were on the future. I wondered "how long do we have?" and tried to make myself ready for what ever life might be like without my dad. It was about waiting and making the way for loss. Although it was a painful time, I am so grateful to have had it. So many people do not have long preparations when they experience loss.
The day he died I was present, in body and mind. I used techniques I had learned in my hospice work to make him more comfortable, I showed up in time to visit with him before he slipped into a comma, and I pushed back my fear so I could be with him in those not so pretty last moments. The whole time thinking "this is it", "wow...it is happening".
Time stopped entirely and my mind was focused in the present moment, no where else
Here I am now...still getting used to the idea that he is gone. Kubler Ross's stages of grief abound and could probably applied to the acclimation period of any of life's transitions. (but that is another blog post).
As I move through my grief, I am caught off guard by tears now and then, but I am more surprised by my lack of tears. Life as a new mom is filled with distractions and even now I am cradling a sleeping baby as I write.
Still, my theory of the stages of transition apply. My mind is in the past, I am overwhelmed with this new life, and my thoughts are "how do I do this...I am doing this".
My life and my mother's life have transformed. My father has transformed, but in all of these stages I have felt his love. Even now that he is gone, the love he shared with me is not. That is a great gift, a great legacy of our relationship and throughout all the transitions in my life it will remain a constant. Love is the beating drum that drives us on through dark passageways to new life.