The last time saw my grandfather alive, in the hospital in the mid-1990s, I had left telling him “Ok Poppie, see you real soon!”
I said that to reassure him. He glanced at me with the side of his eye with a familiar look that he had used when he wanted to call me on my bullshit.
It was a look burned in my memory. I was too frightened to say everything I needed to. I never saw him alive again.
When my uncle died, in 2014, he was frozen in his hospital bed with a look of disbelief, and fear as I left that room. “Please, rest.” Was all I said. Again, I was too frightened to say everything I needed to.
These looks and my fear haunt me now.
So, in November of 2015 when my dad was dying, I was near his bedside for his last struggles, coughs, and painful moans. My father was so true to how he lived in those last days: He complimented my cooking, leaned on me for help while laughing at his own frailness, made funny faces at my mom when he disagreed with her, and he never once pleaded to a God he didn’t believe in for help or mercy. That was his faith, that was his belief, it was authentic, honest and beautiful.
When I said goodbye it was a multi-part process. Spurred on by a friend advising me earlier in the week to “Get there soon and tell him anything you need to before it’s too late.”
I stepped outside of every cowardly feeling and justification not to, and I did.
I apologized for things I probably didn’t need to so he’d hear it and understand that I wished I could have given more, done more, been more.
“That’s life! There’s nothing you can do, ..it’s ok.” He spoke those words to the ceiling while in bed not having the strength to turn his head toward me.
We talked in that fashion for almost three days before I had to get home.
I was scared to leave, I was scared to say something profound and fumble it, I was scared for us both to acknowledge reality and I’d be stuck there. I had done so much in those last days for him, I couldn’t do anymore. There was nothing left, I had nothing left.
I kissed his head, grabbed his hand and squeezed it “I’ll see you soon.” I said and he nodded quietly, looking me in the eye with an expression that read “No you won’t.”
I was dizzy as I departed. I still don’t remember the rest of that day or driving home, I just remember his expression. It was desperate, pain filled, and honest.
I don’t believe death is anything. I believe that this life continues through death. I believe it’s all a single thread.
That belief, that faith, enabled me to be there 100% for my father. I use to believe faith in God was a shame, that it gave me nothing real. I was so wrong, it gave me strength to not let my own fear stop me from showing love, tolerance, and regret. Faith gave me the perspective to be clear and calm as I watched my dad change form and melt away.
“Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was. I am I, and you are you, and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged.
Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference into your tone. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. There is absolute and unbroken continuity.
What is death but a negligible accident? Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just around the corner. All is well. Nothing is hurt, nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before. How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!”
— Henry Scott Holland (27 January 1847–17 March 1918), Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford.