Most people see life and death as separate entities—opposing forces—one a gift and the other a curse. I’ve given birth, seen the beginning of life, and I have walked down the path toward death with people I have loved. Both are messy, uncomfortable, and come with their share of fear. Anyone who tells you differently is not being honest—at least, not in my opinion. We don’t control either birth or death, and it is part of human nature to want to feel in control. Death is not separate from life. It isn’t life’s adversary. It’s another milestone on a long and winding path that begins when we take our first breath. Along the way, we climb, and we fall, and inevitably we trip someone along the way, get scratched, cut, and bruised. Occasionally, we get lost in the woods. And, if we’re lucky, once in a while, we find someone special to help us along.
Last night, I spent several hours at my father’s bedside. I have no idea when his journey will reach that milestone we call death. I do know that he is contemplating it. I know because he is revisiting every step he took in his life. For me, the hours I spent with him last evening are among the most painful I have ever experienced. My pain is not because of the devastation I feel for me. Its cause is the trepidation, guilt, and distress he exhibits. Full disclosure—I have a complicated relationship with my father. That doesn’t mean I don’t love him. I listened to him last night and a piece of my heart broke. You can sum up the relationship we share in the parting exchange we shared last night:
Me: I love you, Dad.
Dad: I know you do.
Dad: That doesn’t help me love myself.
Every misstep, every misguided turn he took, every slight he offered someone, the parts of himself he has attempted to conceal from the world—all of it has left him with the idea that he is “not a very good person.” He recounted more to me about my mother than I ever wanted to hear. He talked, and he mused, and he told me how much things hurt him. Why wasn’t he ever enough for anyone? Gutted. What a familiar refrain. In the bed, I didn’t see an eighty-six-year-old man; I saw a frightened six-year-old boy. All his masks—even as he attempts to paint one on—disappeared. I couldn’t hear him, so I stood beside the bed. I listened. He looked at me and spoke those words, “I’m not a very good person.”
My wife sat on the other side of the room and cried. I looked at my father and said, “you need to let it go, Dad. You can’t go back. You can’t change what happened a minute ago. All that stuff doesn’t make you bad. It just makes you human.”
He replied, “but I wanted to be more than that. I wanted to be a better person.”
What makes someone a better person? What would have made my father believe he was enough? I don’t have that answer. I haven’t answered that question for myself. There’s no way I can espouse any wisdom to him. I know this much: none of us know what’s on the other side of this second. Life begins and ends in one breath. None of us can go back in time and fix the mistakes we’ve made or mend the hurt we have sown. There is no job and no relationship, no possession or degree, no trip and no award that will ever make any of us enough because we are all enough already. I know that. I still have yet to embrace that.
I don’t know why my father can’t recall the images that I can. I tried to remind him of the picnics we took. I recalled the times he pushed me on the swing and sang to me or threw me off his knees in the pond. I talked about laughter, and how he took me to his softball games and then to The Maple Café in Hartford. And, I told him the story about how his younger teammates slipped my first beer when I was about fifteen. Nothing seemed to cajole him from the darker side of his thoughts and memories. I can’t pretend to know all his demons. I do know that there is no absolution in life. There is forgiveness. It tears me apart to think that he can’t forgive anyone—not my mother, not his parents, not me, and most of all, not himself.
I wish I could claim to know what I feel. There are too many competing emotions within me for me to name any— some are less than kind—to my father and to me. What could I have done, what can I do now to be the daughter that he envisioned? I don’t have that answer either. I don’t expect that I ever will. Not every story ends with heartfelt declarations of pride and love, with atonement for past rebukes or arguments. Those scenes play out from time to time. At the end of any part of our journey, we remain broken—wishing we could be fixed. Life and death make no guarantees to any of us. They simply are. How we navigate both is a choice each of us has to make.
I do believe that life is all about connection. I think that we are meant to love. Part of love is joyful, and part of love is painful. Why? Because we’re human. I do believe that when we love we have to love people for all their pieces—even the ones we don’t like. We can’t love someone despite their brokenness or their imperfection. Love dictates that we love them exactly as they are. Why? Because they are human.
As I prepare to head to the hospital today, I have no idea what today will bring—or tomorrow—or the next day. There are moments when I look in the mirror now and I see a little girl who still wishes upon stars. And, there are mornings when I see an old woman, aged far beyond my forty-nine years staring back at me, fearful of that ticking clock that lines my path. Will I ever become a better person? I think we all wrestle with that privately. Maybe the only way for us to be better, to be enough—is to be present.The present is all we honestly have. Why? Because we’re human.