"Love is real. Everything else is an illusion. Live in this realm and be at peace."
Michael Doud - Writer & Film Reviewer
On a Sunday morning, October 29, 1995 at 1:16 AM I received a gift enclosed in the package of human death. That morning I once again learned what it meant to be present, breathe, and say “thank you.” My father died in my arms.
He had been ill for many years with heart problems. In the previous two years he had also been treated for cancer tumors in both his brain and lungs. No, the tumors weren’t dead and gone, just arrested and in jail for the time being. And although the chemotherapy and radiation treatments had left him weak, bald, and at times despondent, they did their job by arresting the cancers. If the pain-racked cancer cells could be held at bay, the doctors bet he would succumb to the less painful death of heart failure.
I had flown down for a visit on this weekend, as I had done every couple weeks in the last year. During my visits, Saturday night included a wonderful family dinner. My brother, his wife, and their two boys would join us for food and lively conversation. It was a carry over from when I was in high school when my friends would join us for dinner.
Back then my friends would come because the food was good, we could each have a beer, and smoke cigarettes. Sometimes it was about my dad telling some tall tale about his abalone diving exploits off of Portuguese Bend, or how he and Frank Shultz built a 32-foot cabin cruiser, or riding his Harley Davidson into a brick wall with a girl on the back. About that story he smiled devilishly and said “heh heh heh, no one got hurt but I felt really bad bringing the girl back to her house and having to tell her mother about the accident. You see she was forbidden to ride on my bike.” We would laugh and ask him to tell us another story. Usually the motorcycle stories would stop with, “that all ended when I met your mom”. He continued by saying, “she said to me, ‘If you’re going to date me you have to have a car because I won’t ride on the back of that thing”. Again, we would laugh as my mom would try to change the story saying something like, “I never said that, I just thought those things were dangerous, does anyone else want some more potatoes”.
As the years went by and especially on this night, like other Saturday night feasts in the last year or so, it was my brother and I telling the stories. Some of them my parents were hearing for the first time. Like the time I took my mother’s Triumph TR3 out for a Wednesday night spin because my parents were at the theater. My brother was sworn to secrecy because he knew he would die if he told on me. As the story unfolded about the night, I spoke of how I gunned the engine while sharply turning a corner and hitting some water in a shallow ditch. “Yeah,” I explained, “all I remember seeing were trashcans, garage doors, parked cars, and lights shining everywhere. It felt like I was in a tilt-a-whirl ride at an amusement park. When the car finally stopped spinning I almost shit my pants”. My brother’s boys roared with laughter and my mother looked at me incredulously and said, “I didn’t know you stole our car”. “Yeah” my brother chimed in, “he did it lots of times and even took me out a couple on occasion.” My parents would just shake their heads in total disbelief.
After a wonderful dinner of lasagna, garlic bread, broccoli, and salad, Dad mentioned he wanted to watch the World Series, so we all moved into the living room with our pie, coffee, and water.
Over the last few months Dad didn’t speak much. He usually would simply sit and listen. I had noticed a slow peace taking over his life. It was almost like life had finally wrestled him to the ground, and he said “uncle”. Now as life was sitting on his chest, pinning him down for the last time, it was like he looked up and said, “Hell, this ain’t a half bad view from down here.” In this peace there was also his ability to listen to life a little more. I knew he was intently listening and drinking in the words and stories of his family. The family he would be soon leaving.
At about 9:30 PM he said he was going to bed. We all hugged him and said “good night”. I remember kissing him on his forehead and saying “I Love You”. He slowly shuffled hunch-backed out to the back patio and had his nightly cigarette before going to bed. After he came back in the house, mom followed him to the bedroom to tuck him in. When she came out she said, “Your father told me to reset the clock in the guest room, he wants to make sure you know the right time in the morning.” He had been listening to my brother and I speak about my Sunday morning flight back to San Francisco, and wanted to make sure I didn’t miss it.
After my brother and his family left, Mom and I stayed up talking and watching a movie until about midnight when we decided to go to bed. I had just laid down after a short meditation, where I had asked God to allow me to be with him when he died, when my mother knocked on the guest room door. “Yeah, come in” I said. Popping her head in the doorway she had this very distraught look on her face saying, “Dad is making funny breathing noises and I can’t wake him up”. Throwing on some shorts I rushed to their bed where I found him in a semi conscious state and breathing very labouredly.
He opened his eyes just a bit and focused for a second, then lost focus. His breathing was arduous and noisy. I looked back up at mom who had this very concerned look on her face. She was lost, needing to hold on to something real; a thought, a duty, a task. She blurted out “should I call 911”? I said, “Yes, but tell them there is no need to come with sirens. Then get dressed (thinking we may be on another trip to the hospital).” She left the room to use the phone in the kitchen. I looked at dad and said, “Stay here”. But no sooner that those words tumbled out of my mouth that it hit me; looking at him, hearing his breathing, and sensing something very different I realized this isn’t what he was going to do. This was it, he would be passing on. With this realization I said, “let it go and I’ll go with you as far as I can”. I had said this for both of us. I realized that if I could let him go he could also let go. His eyes focused on me for a brief moment and with a slight peaceful grin, he let his eyes fade shut.
With his head in my lap, I started to rub his back while holding his hand. I began to mimic and model his breathing. Together we breathed in and out. On the out breath I would say, “let it go, we Love you, thank you for being with us.” After about 5 minutes of this, mom came in dressed ready to leave and said, “How is he doing?” I said, “not much better he seems unconscious now”. “I called 911 and they are on their way, should I call your brother” she asked? “Yes” I said, “Forrest needs to be aware of what is going on.” She left the room to call Forrest, and then went to wait for the paramedics to arrive.
I again focused on mirroring his labored breath. After about 2 minutes, I knew he wouldn’t see any more hospitals; he would be gone in a matter of minutes. I kept hoping the paramedics were taking their time. I continued to breathe with him while thanking him for being my dad, for being mom’s husband, for being my brother’s dad, for being grandfather to my daughter, and my brother’s two boys. I thanked him for gracing our lives and the lives of every one he contacted.
I continued to rub his back and breathe with him as his breath became more labored. There were a couple shallow breaths, which seemed to be at 15-second intervals, then a couple more at 30-second intervals. I realized that it was becoming hard for me to mirror his breathing. I could feel him letting go, I could feel a passing on, and I felt the room become larger. Then all of a sudden there was this one large inhale with his eyes quickly opening all the way, a waiting period of what seemed like 20 – 30 seconds, and then a long slow full exhale with a slight rattle. I knew right then I had witnessed his last breath.
As I sat there with this feeling of awe and it seemed someone was filling the room with a soft warm liquid air clarifying and sharpening every detail in the room. I was witnessing grace. It was the only word that seemed to be equal to the moment. Grace. It was the wholeness of living and dying in one fell swoop. It was the glory and peace of Love.
To this day I can still touch the sensation of the grace as I witnessed it.
I am so very grateful for having learned the gift of how to be present to the moment at hand with equanimity and mindfulness. This gift of, being here now, allowed me to be fully present as a participant in the passing of my father’s soul energy from one realm to another.
I am also very grateful that my father trusted me with escorting him out of this life. It was the most incredible gift of Love I ever received from him, a man who had so much difficulty saying “I Love You”.