Our lying down each night is a rehearsal of sorts for our dying.
Even the idea of “lying with” another, as in the Biblical reference to sexual disport, usually results in la petite mort, the little death of orgasm. So in this sense there are two kinds of death associated with lying down: the “little death” that can yield new life, and the historical death from which we do not return.
I think upon this fifty years after my dad’s death in 1967 because his birthday was a few days ago, July 26. He would have been 101 years old. But he is still very much alive in my memory.
He was in a hospital bed when I last saw him alive. Lying there, he winked at me as I ended my visit.
I took his wink as a signal that he was recovering from the diabetes-induced heart attack that had hospitalized him. I thought that had he felt himself near death, he would be filled with the terror of his own impermanence, as one writer put it, as he entered “the quarry in our consciousness where the beasts and boogeymen live.”
So I did not visit him the next day because he seemed so fine. Heck, he winked, hadn’t he?
But the following afternoon, as I was covering my beat as a young reporter, I got the phone call. As I quickly drove to the hospital, I turned off the car radio because other noise was drumming in my head: “Dad’s dead!”
When I got to the hospital, he was lying in the same bed, but this time his head was thrown back, his mouth was agape, and my mother was standing beside the bed stroking his already cold forehead.
Dad and I had a troubled relationship.
He was impatient with my inability to do things with my hands. More than once he reminded me, “You couldn’t fix a pimple on a mechanic’s ass.”
But in later years, when he started to read my by-lined stories in the newspaper, he finally found something to compliment: “At least you can write.”
Now that I can no longer count the decades of my life on the fingers of one hand, I appreciate Dad and am grateful that I had a resident father—even one who was a formidable presence.
Despite failings, unmet expectations—even outright meanness sometimes—he was homo intentio, a stretching, straining, striving man. Not unlike what I myself, perhaps, am.
Now, in light of my own unmet ambitions, I have a taste of what it must have been for him to want to be a lawyer, but be forced to work as a laborer to help provide for his parents and siblings.
Did that eat at him his whole life, even after he became a policeman? Did being a cop bring him as close to The Law as he wanted? Is that why his fellow officers mocked the serious way he discharged his duties—by nicknaming him Sam Spade? (the protagonist of Dashiell Hammett's 1930 novel, The Maltese Falcon).
On his birthday I understand that Dad could not go back and rewrite his life. Nor can I. It’s too late. I had my time, my years, my chances. In retirement, I can look back and judge only my choices, not his.
Now, after so many years, I realize I loved him more than I knew, more than he knew.
The only present grace left to me, I believe, is to recognize and be grateful for the golden moments. And there were many.
Living and dying belong together. Learning to live is learning to die. By learning to live gratefully, we learn to die peacefully.
Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB
(Image: My Dad and Mini-Him)