It got me thinking about the most traumatic experience I’ve ever had with death, my father’s. It took us over 30 years to develop the relationship we both wanted, but even two stubborn mules will finally pull in the same direction, and for the last 20 years of his life, I came to love, respect, and admire him. I also understood how much of what’s good in me was his gift.
I’m a hard-core agnostic, but dad was a fanatic atheist. He was also brilliant, a self-educated man who had had to drop out of high school when his father died during the Depression. Reason was his God, and since there is no way to reason your way to faith, he denied it categorically.
He died in 1998 of emphysema. I will always be in awe of the fight he put up, confounding doctor after doctor, as the disease progressed. He refused to give in, even when he was on oxygen tanks. The tanks may have made him give up tennis, but they didn’t stop him from playing golf 4 or 5 times a week. He never complained, never lost his sense of humor or his love of reading and music, nor his passion for a good debate.
He was the most stubborn human being ever to put foot on the planet.
But in the end, as always, the disease won. He lingered for nine very hard days in the hospital, and not only was I there the entire time, I was with him at the end. During those nine days, with the whole family there, we had a simple rule — you didn’t cry in front of him. He knew he was dying, but he had no need to talk about it, and he didn’t want people getting upset in front of him. We joked, discussed books, fought over his treatments, and talked about every issue under the sun…except his death.
He just wasn’t concerned about God and what happens after death.
Finally, the doctors put in a morphine drip to control his ever-increasing pain, but we all knew and agreed that it would eventually end his life. It was the most painful decision I’d ever made. My brother and I were in the room when the doctor came in with the drip, and dad looked at Scott and asked him, “Do you agree with this?” Scott managed to say yes. And then he asked me the same question, and I was about as inarticulate as Scott in agreeing.
“All right then, I agree too,” he said. The doctor assured us that he would be asleep within an hour or two — at most. My wife, Pam, and I took a break to get some lunch, and when we returned, someone ran up to me and said, “Dad’s sitting up in bed eating lunch.” I ran to his room, and sure enough, he was acting as if they were pumping sugar water into his veins.
When I found the doctor and told him that he wasn’t asleep, he first thought I meant he wasn’t dead, but when I said, “No, he’s sitting up in bed eating lunch,” the doctor told me that was impossible. He went into his room, confirmed that we hadn’t been hallucinating, turned up the morphine drip, and, as we walked out, he looked at me and said, “You’re father’s an ox. We could put the entire hospital out with as much as he’s getting.”
However, even an ox has to give in to the inevitable. He went to sleep that afternoon and all medical procedures were stopped. At around 10 or 11 that night, just when I thought the morphine drip had let him slip into a deep sleep for good, he somehow woke up and called for me. His mouth and nose were filled with mucous to the point where he could barely breathe. I screamed for a nurse, who informed me that there was an order to discontinue all procedures — that is until she saw the look in my eyes and ran to get the equipment to clean out his mouth and nose. I also ordered her to turn up the morphine drip…a lot.
With enough morphine running through his veins to kill 20 normal men, he was alert and clear headed. I stayed with him while the nurse cleaned him up. Then he took my hand, looked at me, and said with complete clarity. “Mark, don’t worry. I’m not afraid.” He paused, smiled, and said, “I fought the good fight.” I knew that, inside, he was proud as hell of himself. Then he slowly drifted back to sleep, and when he knew it was time to go, he died peacefully and willingly…on his terms.
I will never forget those words. Don’t worry. I’m not afraid. I fought the good fight. Concern for me, comfortable with his own death, and proud of what he’d accomplished.
I suppose it’s reasonable to ask if, at the end, he somehow found God which accounts for how peaceful he was. I wish I knew, but he never mentioned it. He was at peace, and that’s all I care about.
I offer this story in tribute to a great man, but also because it reinforces what I’ve always believed — the end doesn’t matter; it’s only the journey that’s important.
Thoreau once wrote, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” I think that’s the saddest thought I’ve ever heard. Our task in life is to keep our song alive. My dad’s song always rang loud and clear.
Emerson was a little less morbid:
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
“The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.”
“Don’t be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment.”
“Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.”
Emerson was an optimist, but these aren’t bad rules by which to live your life, and, if you succeed, then does your death really matter?