Wednesday, March 23, 2016

At the end, how do we say goodbye?

This has been one of the hardest posts for me to write. A dear friend's husband, L,  passed away suddenly, leaving everyone shell-shocked and heartbroken. There was no warning, no preparation. Most painfully, there was no time for goodbye. Everyone was, of course, wishing for an opportunity to bid a proper farewell, for time to say all that needed to be said. But such is life that we really don't know when our time is up.  We can only hope that when we do go, our affairs are in order. We want to prepare those around us for the eventuality of our demise. Everyone imagines the "last conversation" they'll have with loved ones, but how many of us do get that chance, and even when we have it, know what to say?

My father spent about a month in the ICU after a heart attack, before a series of heart attacks finally claimed his life. He was a man of few words, retiring and reticent. I took turns with the rest of my family to sit with him in the hospital room, making sure that he had help with food and drinks. We think that when someone is dying, there is opportunity for things to be said that could not be articulated before. I now regret that I didn't talk openly with him and ask him questions, but I was too tongue-tied, too inhibited by this stern, no-nonsense man. And so I remained silent, at 28, too immature to realize that I would never have that chance again to talk really openly and honestly with him.

Many of the questions I would have liked to ask would have been about his childhood, and coming of age in war-torn China. I never even found out about his family, or his courting of my mother. Other questions would probably have been too big for proper answers, like whether he had any regrets or dreams that remain unfulfilled. I couldn't ask if he was afraid of dying or feeling at peace. I don't think there were any misunderstandings that needed to be cleared up between us, but then again, because I didn't open my mouth to ask, who knows?

Even if I had gathered the courage to ask him all these questions at a time that he must have recognized as the end of his life, he probably would have demurred or deflected them. A lifetime habit of being taciturn wouldn't have changed. As it was, he remained the quiet man he was till the end.

And even if we have time for a last conversation, how can there be enough for little more than a few words? For those of us left behind to mourn our loss, we seek some words of assurance, that all is forgiven and we are absolved. For the departing soul, we hope for peace and the certainty that all that needed to be done would have been taken care of.

Most of us don't get to choose when we leave this earth. Even my friend's husband, L, said on a couple of occasions to different people in the days before his death that you simply don't know. I like to think that if I were to die now, I would be quite prepared for it. I've put my affairs in order and left clear instructions on what needs to be done. I've packed in quite a lot of living into my not-quite 60 years, and my son is a grown man. Perhaps my only regret is that I would not have seen him settle down and start a  family.

L's death has reminded me yet again of the fragility and uncertainty of life. I'm pretty close to my son, nevertheless I'm planning to sit down with him soon and have that last conversation with him because you really never know. I'll invite him to ask me questions that he's always had and (maybe) never got the chance to ask.

The L I knew was a caring and loving husband, father, son and brother. He was a dependable and stalwart friend to many, always ready to lend a hand. He had a true sense of justice, discerning clearly between right and wrong. He treasured his time with his family, making sure to take them for vacations that they can now look back on with fond memories. Among his many talents was his amazingly green thumb. I always admired his garden, which he tended beautifully.

None of his loved ones had that last conversation with L, but they can gain some solace from the fact that his passing was instantaneous and he didn't suffer. They have memories, of course, of holidays together, snippets of conversations, jokes shared, a hug and kiss, a word of advice. I had a look at his garden yesterday and said a prayer. Perhaps that will suffice as my goodbye.

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