“Why is there death, Mommy?”
That’s the sort of questions Veeka has been asking me ever since my father – and her grandfather – died a week ago on June 24 at the age of 91. Mercifully, she’d been at camp all day but when I picked her up late that afternoon, she knew something was wrong right away. Much earlier that day, the nurses in the unit where my dad was staying woke my mom up to say he seemed much worse. She went downstairs to the unit and held vigil for a few hours, then returned to her apartment for a quick nap. Then my brother Steve arrived from Portland. He’d left at the crack of dawn to get there and he found a kind employee called Ron Cole who, not wanting my dad to be alone while my mother slept, had been sitting by my father’s side. Steve wrote about this encounter in the Oregonian this week.
Then my mother returned to the room. Also arriving was Jim Eichner, an Episcopal priest I knew from a nearby parish and someone who dropped by my parents’ retirement center to offer Communion every fourth Friday. Several days before, I’d asked him to drop by my dad’s bedside before going to the monthly service. So he showed up just after 10 a.m. at about the same time my brother and mom walked in. At this point, my dad was breathing quite laboriously and Jim quickly surmised that he didn’t need Communion; he needed Last Rites. He quickly prayed this over my dad, ending with the Lord’s Prayer. I think he left the bedside at this point and texted me, saying I’d better drive over as quickly as possible.
I’d just gotten out of the shower, so I texted Steve to ask how Dad was doing and to say I was on my way. He and my mom both noticed that after the Lord’s Prayer, my dad had visibly relaxed, as if the prayers had released him in some way. Or maybe he knew he could let go. His breathing slowed and then stopped. They called in a nurse, who listened for a heartbeat. There was none. It was just before 10:30 a.m. Steve called me to say not to hurry too much, as my father was already gone.
I got there about a half hour later and the three of us held vigil by his body until the funeral home got there two hours later. We were dazed, not believing that he had left us so quickly. It had been such a grace that the priest had arrived at just the right time to say the prayers that helped my dad depart and that Steve had left Portland 180 miles away at just the right time he needed to reach my father’s side so my mother would not be alone.
I insisted about an hour later that we call my parents’ church so they could be looking for a date for his funeral. It will be July 10; a military funeral at the Episcopal cathedral where my parents attended for so many years. Two days after his death, the Compline choir at St. Mark’s kindly included my dad’s name in their prayers for the newly deceased. You can listen to it here at about moment 21. And many folks have been reading the column that Steve wrote last summer about my father’s last trip to his birthplace in New Ulm, Minn., and his farewell to his older sister. She died last December and now he’s followed her just over six months later.
Just a week before on a Friday, my father had been sitting in his apartment, there to see his beloved kitties. We didn’t realize it would be his last visit there. The following Sunday, Veeka and I went raspberry picking and showed up in his room with a flat of fresh berries. He ate one but at that point, he was hardly getting down any food. That was the last day I saw him alive. And so we’ve planned a service that has the hymns he wanted and a reception (wine and cheese!) he would appreciate.
At the same time, we go shopping today for the appropriate black shoes and clothing for a funeral. As I’ve thought and mourned, this Benedictus by Karl Jenkins has expressed the emptiness I feel. And so does the arrangement of “In the Mansions of the Lord” from the movie “We Were Soldiers.” I selected the version played at President Reagan’s funeral, which I thought was heart-breakingly beautiful, expecially the instrumental part when the crucifer team heads down from the main altar. When people die, you know they are happier and pain-free now. We mourn for ourselves, the dreadful loneliness that we feel when someone we’ve known since birth is gone. The older you get, the harder it is to form new relationships and the more you lean into the ones you’ve had when you were young. For instance, we’ve been back in the Seattle area almost a year now and I’ve made no friends. Oh, there are people who’ve helped us in various ways, but there’s been no new friends. Most of mine are in Portland or back in Washington DC.
And so family is all we have here. And it’s been so wonderful to be part of peoples’ birthdays and holidays and to no longer have to wait for strangers to invite us in.
Fortunately, three of my high school friends are in the area. All of us are turning 60 this year. If I live as long as my dad did, my life is only two-thirds done. The way ahead sure feels lonelier. At least I live close to my mother; Steve is still a three-or-four-hour drive away and my other brother Rob is moving back to Washington state in the fall, although he’ll be several counties away. I am so grateful that this year is not last June, when I was still in Fairbanks. I would have gone crazy knowing my dad was dying and not being able to be there and do things like get the paperwork filled out for the crematorium and just be there. I am glad we are back home at a place where I can see the mountains when I am driving down the freeway.
I keep on telling Veeka that our true home is elsewhere and that if at times we feel homesick, it’s a natural feeling that shows us we’re meant for heaven. C.S. Lewis wrote about this inconsolable longing in Mere Christianity:
“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others do the same.”