The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Reflections on the death of my father

Posted by Ron George on February 8, 2010

Folks who keep journals know what this is like: You come across words you wrote years before, and they either haunt you or heal you. The haunting words are those you wish you’d never written, but the healing words seem to come from somewhere else, perhaps from Someone else. And maybe they weren’t healing at the time, but given a new context, they find their way to your heart as meaning and even blessing.  

"Kleine Schadelei" by Swen Wangeman

I came across an old file on my computer the other day, a journal I kept while waiting upon my father’s death in January 2002. I’ve digested those reflections into what follows. For the most part, I’ve left it the way it was written. These words may neither haunt nor heal, but I do hope they mean something as we walk the paths of our lives toward their inevitable conclusion. 

Afterward: Jan. 13, 2002

I left home just a week ago Thursday [Jan. 3, 2002], but I feel as though I’ve been gone months and months. And since Dad died? Years. Just seems long ago, somehow. Maybe death’s like that. Time stands still for all concerned. There’s an eternal moment, one of those facets of our existence that makes us wonder whether there is a God somewhere in the universe. The mystery of death is the root of our religious impulse, the seed of whatever faith we may embrace that our awareness of life here and now is only part of what it means to be incarnated. It gives rise to speculation about “soul,” and then all those other, somewhat silly, speculations about heaven, hell and even salvation. Stuff we can’t know but about which we can’t resist concocting theories.

All that matters is here and now. God takes care of the rest. Grab a myth to live by, Joseph Campbell might say, but don’t be too surprised to know that it is a myth and that it falls considerably short of what is. It’s not as though we ought to say we have no need of these stories that help us organize our fears into ways of talking about God. We’re not entitled, though, to claim any ultimacy for these systems of thought. All fall short of the glory of God.

While waiting: Jan. 4, 2002

I’m emotionally unmoved by all of this, or have been so far. Maybe that’s normal, maybe not. I don’t know. I’m not nervous or fearful. The waiting, frankly, is boring. Mom said this morning that dying seems to be hard. Probably. Seems a lot like the ultimate insult if you’re not in awe of the Moment of death — of non-being. There’s nothing to reflect about at that point. Mom wondered what Dad had been thinking the past several days. I doubt it’s much more than the body’s unconscious struggle to stay alive long as possible. Maybe there’s a war between the body and the mind or spirit. The body wants to keep on ticking while the mind, or what’s left of it, keeps saying, “God, I wish I’d die.” As I said, the ultimate insult. Ready to go, but something or Someone else is in charge. Give it up? Gladly, but how? Lie still. Endure the pain and indignity of it all. Hope it doesn’t take too long. 

"to fade away IV" by Katrin Genster

We talk about it as though people can “cling to life” or “give up.” I doubt that’s the case. We just are there until it’s over, until the body quits. Or the brain, or whatever. That Moment comes, I guess. An eternal instant. Then what? Eternal life? Nothingness? Yes and yes. It’s a mystery. We can’t know. Makes faith truly an act of love in response to Love.

I’m intellectualizing as usual, my long-term game plan for not coming to terms with my feelings. Thing is, I keep expecting to feel something, but I don’t or can’t. Whatever my emotional state, it seems as though I’ve been conditioned to respond in a certain way. I’m aware of a constant stream of thoughts, memories and fears — that Dad won’t die “peacefully,” whatever that means. I think this is right, but we’re each dealing with it in our own way. My sister Sue is sitting quietly. Sister Reba is taking down the Christmas tree. I’m in here wondering what to do next. I have nothing to say, but I have a lot on my mind.

Dad wanted to be baptized not long ago because he wasn’t sure he had been. Hedging his bets? It doesn’t matter. There is no heaven and no hell, but only being with God, whose will it is that we live and die, and that we belong to God, not to ourselves. Nothing convinces me more than how we die that we do not belong to ourselves. Want humility? Wait around long enough and you will be humbled by the Ultimate Humbler. Better to get used to it and understand life as a gift from God, or at least as a gift, an unprecedented opportunity to know and be known and to understand and be understood. To love and to be loved.

Theological virtues are the truth of our existence, even though they’re a bit stuffy. Patience? Boy, just wait ’til you’re about to die, until you’re ready to die while your body betrays you into staying and staying and staying. Charity? The saying that we can’t take it with us is a joke, but it’s true, and true because we do act as though we can take something with us to the grave by heaping up treasures on earth. We can’t. It doesn’t belong to us anymore. I suppose one might be buried in a bigger box than the poor man, but by then who knows and who cares? The point of having is to be blessed by the loving opportunity to give it to someone else. Avarice is a deadly sin because we ultimately find ourselves betrayed by loyalty to greed. When we die, we know for sure that none of it means more than the pleasure we might have had being more generous. Faith helps us interpret life and death. I wonder what it’s doing for Dad right now as we mill around the house wondering how long it will be before he breathes his last …

I held Dad’s hand this morning and rubbed his legs when he said they hurt. He looked at me, perhaps with unknowing eyes, but he squeezed my hand. Reflex? Was it me or was it Memorex, some memory back there somewhere that really didn’t make sense to him? Doesn’t seem to matter, much. Nothing does, except the end of this pitiful end. No wonder we try to dignify death with funerals. No wonder some would rather die on a battlefield. (Would they? They might if they knew what awaited them in old age.) No wonder we suggest that there’s something better beyond. If there’s not, then this shabby business at the end of life is truly something to be feared. A theology suggesting that God is “in control” of all this doesn’t wash. God is not in control. Anyone with eyes and ears in the back bedroom of our home can see that chaos yawns under the whole shebang and that all we have to keep us from going mad is our myths. Thank God for that, anyway … 

While waiting: Jan. 6, 2002

I spent some time alone with Dad last night and began to pray. Something in my heart opened up and I began to feel something for a change. As usual, I was flooded with memories, but now these were offered to God, and my prayer was that this lingering life would end and that he would not be afraid, comforted by his family. Sue and Reba came in and we embraced — then got back to the business of trying to keep Dad’s airway clear of mucous. He’s so weak he can’t cough it up. It just rattles up from his chest to the back of his throat. If you can catch the tip end of some of it with the suction wand, a lot more follows in a kind of mucous rope. Reba, Gracie (a caretaker) and I changed his diaper. Reba’s grief kicked in, I think, because Mary  said she returned to the kitchen upset … 

"Llorna" by Marcela Rodriguez Aguilar

No change this morning. He slept most of the night and so did Mom. Mary and I slept until well past our usual rising time. I slept for an hour or so yesterday afternoon. I guess we’re all a little depressed. I tried reading yesterday and couldn’t keep my eyes open. I wrote Dad’s obit. I think I might have another go at it today … Reba did a little editing last night, but I haven’t seen the draft since I printed it out. I wrote it on my laptop as I sat at the foot of Dad’s bed. It didn’t seem strange or macabre once I began, but there was a decisional “hump” to get over. I guess I didn’t want to offend anyone, but it seemed ordinary and common after I started. Oh, there’s Ron writing Dad’s obit. What else?

Mary remarked last night that this seemed the best way for a family member to die, with somewhat ordinary life continuing while the dying person sleeps away his life. Much better than waiting around in a hospital room, something Mom long ago vowed would not happen. Dad always hated hospitals, she said (yes, in the past tense) … I spent some time with Gracie in Dad’s room. Felt as though it was my time to be there. I feel much better today. I feel as though I have a part in this. It’s something you have to do for yourself. I am usually slow to pick up on such things … 

Post mortem: Jan. 7, 2002

Dad died yesterday (Jan. 6, 2002), about 2:25 p.m. by our best reckoning. Becky (a hospice nurse), attended by Reba and me, had spent some time cleaning out Dad’s poor dried-out mouth with the suction wand and a hemostat. Caretaker Mary Lozano had come and Maria to bathe him. He was shaven and even had on some Old Spice. After the mouth-cleaning operation, I guess about 1:45, I headed for the kitchen to make a sandwich. Becky had a few other chores to do and Reba stayed with her. After the sandwich, I lay down for a few minutes with a book in the apartment to grab a nap before plowing back into my class prep. Reba came to the door and said, “Ron, Dad’s stopped breathing.”

Mom, Reba and Mary (a caregiver) were at Dad’s bedside, all weeping. Dad was still as stone. He lay in the hospital bed under the American flag blanket Reba and Deb had given him for Christmas. His arms, black and blue from Prednizone, were at his sides. It was as though he were at attention in bed — all he needed was the uniform … I removed the oxygen line from Dad’s face and turned off the generator. That really uncorked Mary, who had been with Dad only three days, but who had said from day one that she always got too close to the people she cared for … 

"Death Painting One" by Lynne Taetzsch

Someone said, “He’s not there.” I don’t believe that. I don’t know what was there of Dad, but I know that when I looked at the body on the bed I saw Marshall Eugene George. He had changed. His relationship with us, with God, with everything that is had changed, but there was just something wrong about saying he wasn’t there any more. I don’t know how, but he was. When the funeral home guys left the house, trying to negotiate the gurney through the storm door that wanted to be shut, I held it open and said as they left, “Handle with care, gentlemen.” You’re handling something, someone, precious to God, whose body was a complex symbol of God’s presence in time and space, a self-reflective being capable of remarkable contemplation of what is, what isn’t and what ought to be. Created in God’s image, not just in some airy, spiritual way, but constituted in a particular physical way — a wonderful brain protected within that thick skull, those arms, legs and hands capable of so very much that we have imitated God by the discovery of truth and beauty in art, science and religion. And yes, sadly, we have betrayed God by discovery of warfare, brutality and greed.

My father — his body and whatever constituted his spirit — was precious to God, and if not God, if there isn’t a God, then he was precious to us, no less a symbol of meaning, of love, of the choice to be together as a family, to see ourselves changed over time into what we might become. Even in a godless universe, there is something magnificent about our passage through life to death, something overwhelmingly mysterious that brings out the best and worst in us. We have created religion to deal with this passage, and perhaps we have created God — but I prefer to believe that God creates us, “our selves, our souls and bodies to be a holy and living sacrifice” given to the discovery of truth and beauty in an otherwise hostile, dangerous universe.

As Dad lay dead in the back room, people gathered in the den and living room. He was still there, and oddly there seemed little difference between the man who had lain in the bed for so many months and the man who now lay there with no breath in him, turning cold and ashen. It was the right way of things for the living to get on with living while the dead lay where he fell, as it were. We gathered for prayer around that bed not because Dad wasn’t there but because he was. Mom and Reba held his hands during the pastor’s prayer not because Dad wasn’t there, but because he was.

"Easter Morning" by Jim Jangket

Where did we ever get this idea, this ancient fable, that we somehow “inhabit” our bodies? We are our bodies, and even though there appears to be something about us that is no longer there when we die, our bodies do not cease to be ours. Theologically, they never cease to be God’s, either. So, do what you will with the body of one who has died, but do it as though it mattered, that by God’s will this body came into being and now must be returned to the Giver.

My father’s body will be burned to ashes. Those ashes will be scattered in Salado, at the cemetery where my grandparents Momma Eva and Daddy Cecil Berry are buried. At that point, I wonder, what is there of my father with his body? Those ashes will be purged of all defect. He will be rendered pure, somehow, refined as by fire, utterly changed into something else. Those ashes will be special. They will not be mistreated, but handled according to his wishes, put where he wanted them put. His life will have been utterly spent.

I wonder whether that’s really the best way. Symbolically, it says the most about life’s mysterious ending in death. Finally, annihilation seems to be God’s way, his will that we be utterly spent. The myth of our rising again on the Last Day helps focus our hope that the end of history is vindication of the truth that Love is the power of God. Our faith may be expressed in the burning of our bodies, those symbolic entities of God’s presence in time and space. We are returned to elements in hope that, in the eternity of God, our being and God’s will be made one. Jesus’ resurrection is the prototype of that hope, though I doubt that it’s necessarily the means of our eternal redemption by God. The resurrection of Jesus was and is the eternal sign of his holiness. We will follow in those steps, somehow, though our bodies be buried, burned or lost at sea. We will rise with Christ by the power of God’s love, regardless of the place and condition of our bodies after we die. Jesus said that the hairs on our heads are counted. Nothing and no one is lost, even if we lose track of someone from time to time.

This doesn’t mean our bodies aren’t essential to our identities. When we change, however, especially at death, our bodies seem to change most utterly, but mightn’t this be the outward and visible sign of great change inward and spiritually? Of course, I believe, but it’s beyond apprehension on this side of death. Our senses do not lie — death is as it appears to be, an ending, final, irrevocable — but our faith tells us there is something more. What, we don’t know. Is it vanity? Striving after the wind? Whistling in the dark? Denial? A fairy tale to keep our guts from churning through our skin as death approaches? A comforting just-so story to enable us to deal with our grief at the loss of a loved one? Maybe.

There’s reason enough to wonder whether the overwhelming power of death, of ceasing to be, drives religious urges that protect us against its apparent finality. There’s reason enough to hope, as well, given what we experience of God’s love in this life, that love and death are closely related and equally divine. Both utterly transform us. Both are, in the light of faith, indisputably God’s will. To embrace one would seem to imply embracing the other. So we are protected from fear of death by love, which takes away that fear. That is what religion is “for,” but it also gives us the opportunity to discover the ways of God in this privileged time of human embodiment, of letting eternal life begin here and now so that when we die, we may not fear it, even if our last days are spent lying in our own shit.


6 Responses to “Reflections on the death of my father”

  1. Anonymous said

    Hi Ron,

    Thank you for using my art in your article. Kind regards, Marcela Rodriguez.

  2. Bob Horner said

    Hey’ve been on my prayer list for a spell, not quite sure why but now I you could use those fine talents to express some beautiful thots on dying..and at my age and avocation: chaplaining and Retirement/Nursing Home visits and funeral planning/conducting etc, this offering seems so powerful and no doubt will be an inspiration for others to journal a loved one’s death..i plan to make it into a small booklet of sorts (with your blessing, and of course annonamously to guide others in journaling or whatever. many thanx and blessings.

  3. dr. fred said

    What a beautiful gift you are! The power, depth and craft in this piece leaves me breathless. Thank you, Ron. A thousand times, thank you. Love, Fred

  4. Lissa Davidson said

    It has been a long time, yet we speak of you often. Reading your
    words left me weak. I glad at the end you reassured me and yourself that you believed. I remember a service when you were reading a prayer “the white robbed army of martyrs…” then fell into a quite moment from memories of your Dad. I think of you each time we recite that prayer.
    Thank you, Lissa
    Holy Innocents – Madisonville

  5. Ralph Willis said

    Having just read your latest posting Ron I am reminded of a conversation we had some time back about your not really being a contempltaive or mystically inclined. (Maybe it was just my misunderstanding of the topic at hand,) Whatever the case I would urge you to go to your posting again, find the paragraph that begins “I wonder whether……..”, and read through the the next paragraph that ends with “Maybe”.

    Those words as well as the rest of the posting helps to affirm my own contemplative journey as well as giving thanks for the mystery. Blessings my friend. Ralph

  6. JIm A said

    thanks for posting this. As is often the case when I read your personal stuff – as opposed to your equally good analytical posts – I got a little teared up by the end. I hope I can share a paragraph with some folks at bible study – you have a great insight on embodied life.

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