My Father’s Happy Death

I buried my father yesterday.  Tears wet my cheeks as the sailor handed the folded flag to my mother for his service on the USS Midway as the bugle call Taps played. Two weeks ago, my mom and I had a long conversation on the phone. I was 3,000 miles away wondering how much more time my dad had to live. My mom spent 57 years with my dad.  She exemplified so much courage these last few months as she saw reality for what it was. She told me, “I just wish for him a happy death”.

If only we all could have the strength to look death in the face and befriend it, rather than fight death at all costs. Our culture supports our denial of death. All four of my siblings were challenged by my father’s illness over the last three years and we all served different roles. I am humbled by their love and dedication to my father. Geography created barriers for me but I flew home about 4-5 times a year to provide relief to my two siblings who sacrificed the most to support my father.

If there is one thing that is certain in life, it is death yet the circumstances are full of uncertainties. Where will we be, who will be with us, when will it happen, why, what the cause of death is, what state will the body be in are all things that vary from situation to situation. Death flirted with my father many times during his career in the fire department, particularly when a roof collapsed on him. Two years ago he survived a four-month hospitalization with sepsis and had a very strong will to live.

My dad and I many years ago

My dad and I many years ago

Living in California, two weeks into a new job and having traveled to Nepal last month, I had resigned myself to the idea that I would likely not be with my dad at the end. I arranged to visit for a long weekend to help my family out in caring for him. I had no idea my long weekend would turn into his last three days of life. While it was heartbreaking to see his thin body, his rapid, labored breathing, and hear his rattling cough; I knew this was a sacred time. I was honored to witness his friend, Monsignor Dooley administer last rites. I strategically under medicated my dad so that he would be alert enough to be aware of the sacrament. Compromising his physical comfort in exchange for his spiritual comfort was one of the best things I did that weekend. I could feel a shift as he was absolved of all sin as my brothers, my mom and I heard him tell Fr. Dooley that he was the greatest priest.

A few hours later when I went to reposition him in bed, he took his last breath. On that exhale, my mom got her wish of a happy death for my father. He died peacefully at home in his bedroom, surrounded by loved ones. No more pain, no more suffering for him but I am left with the uncertainties of a broken heart. Just as he turned toward death, I am turning toward my broken heart and meeting it with a lot of love and compassion.