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It’s Not the End, It’s the Journey: A Tribute to My Dad

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Recently, Chantal Stone wrote A Few Thoughts On Life And Death Thereafter, although I actually found it on her blog, The World Inside My Head.

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?

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About Mark Schannon

Retired crisis & risk manager/communications expert; extensive public relations experience in most areas over 30 years. Still available for extraordinary opportunities of mind-numbing complexity. Life-long liberal agnostic...or is that agnostic liberal.
  • Mark,
    Very touching; painful but complete. It would be a cheap god that would order us to believe in a particular faith. Clear-headedness and kindness. What more could be asked of us?

  • I know your dad’s departure was eight years ago, but you have my deepest condolences. Reading the piece made me think about losing my father in late ’03. Yeah, it’s the journey. How blessed are we that ours included our dads…

  • John & NR, thank you for your sentiments. I never intended to write this, but I was commenting on Chantal’s blog and it all just flowed out. Then I knew I had to enhance it and write what’s been inside me for so long.

    And John, wait until I review your book. It’s magnificently written with a complexity that slowly becomes clear as one reads on.

  • Mark…..
    Thanks for the mention 😉

    One of things that stands out for me is “the end doesn’t matter; it’s only the journey that’s important.”

    I think that is so true….one of the things that always bothered me about Christianity, and other faiths for that matter, is that sometimes people can become so consumed with the idea of heaven, “treasures in heaven”, that they often neglect to live their lives to fullest here and now.

    It sounds like your father lived his life to the fullest, and he passed that gift down to you.

    This was beautifully written and I’m really glad you expanded on your thoughts from my blog.

  • Bliffle

    Not many of us can say with truth “I fought the good fight” when we come to the end.

  • Mark, your father was one tough and hard to beat man. I’m willing to bet that the Angel of Death is still out of breath from dealing eith him, and its been eight years.

    And he said the most important words you could possibly hear from a dying man:

    “I fought the good fight.”

    May I only be so lucky to be able to say something like that near my death, and mean it.

    It strikes me that a book about a man that struggled that hard to live would be read as an inspiration. If you get it published, I’ll be glad to review it.

  • Bliffle & Ruvy, those last minutes with my father are the clearest and most powerful memories in this mess of neurons I call a brain. I’m not a very visually-oriented person, but I can see it so clearly. I hope too that, at my death, I can go without fear and believing that I fought the good fight.

    And Ruvy, the Angel of Death, at last report, was still in a clinic recovering and muttering to himself. God had to name a temporary replacement.

    But a book!? Yikes. One of the issues would be the issue of complete disclosure/truth vs. hand selecting events to make a philosophical point. I don’t think right now I could write the former–I’m not sure I’d ever be able to. The latter would be a bear–it’s an interesting idea and at least I have a start. (Thanks–like I needed more to do, LOL.)

    And that’s the truth!