I haven't really cried since my father died. I don't think those tears will ever come. It's not because I'm incapable of sadness. It's not because I don't feel impacted by his exit. I will forever miss my father. I will miss that I can never have another conversation with him. I will miss his presence both during the big moments (my wedding, if I ever have one) and the small moments (putting together a puzzle or playing a simple board game... things we liked to do together). But I'm not devastated by the reality of his death.
There are certain things that come up as you come to terms with the fact that you are sitting with a dying person. During the last week of my father's life, when I first realized that he wasn't going to make it, I wanted to be able to talk to him. He was getting weaker, he was on a ventilator, and conversation was not possible. I also wanted him to be comfortable. In the moments when he could speak, I wanted him to lie to me. When I went into his hospital room and asked "How are you feeling, Dad," I wanted him to say that he felt great, that he was getting better. But he didn't lie to me. He told me the truth. It was a truth I needed to hear because it helped me to understand how to be there... how to just be with him during the last days and the last moments of his life. It helped me to acknowledge that everything that needed to be said had been said, and that there was just one thing left for me to do.
There were moments when I wanted to run and escape... not physically, but mentally. I wanted to chant or listen to music or play a game on my iPod, or practice lovingkindness meditation. For a few moments, I turned to these distractions and they felt wrong, so I dropped them. There is nothing wrong with chanting, and there is nothing wrong with meditation. There is nothing wrong with playing music and there is nothing wrong with playing games. But some moments seem to call for your total presence, your undivided attention. When I was at the hospital, I learned to just be at the hospital. To be present with the sounds of the machines and the smells of illness... to be present with all of the emotions of the people around me--my mother, my brother, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends... to sit and hold my father's hand, to rub my mother's back.
There was a morning meeting in a small conference room. We were told by his doctor of many years that there was nothing left for the doctors to do. We were asked how we wanted to proceed. We decided to stop the medication, to remove the ventilator, to allow for a peaceful, comfortable exit. We were given time to bring the family together. We waited for everyone to be present who could, and we watched as nurses came to make him comfortable. I remember a moment when the waiting became unbearable. I remember feeling like a child in a car asking that question I hate to be asked when I'm driving.
"Are we there yet?"
And I realized and named what I was feeling... anxious, impatient. And somehow those feelings went away.
There is a verse from Advice on Dying that captured so clearly for me the final hour of my father's life:
May we generate a powerful mind of virtue
When the elements--earth, water, fire, and wind--
dissolve in stages
And physical strength is lost, mouth and nose dry and
Warmth withdraws, breaths are gasped, and rattling
When I read this verse the day after he died, it brought me right back to those final moments. And I think that the first line of the stanza applies whether we are the dying person or whether we are siting with the dying. If we want to be existential about it, I guess we can acknowledge that we are always dying and that one powerful way to meet that death in every moment is to generate a powerful mind of virtue. But what does that mean? I think it comes back to understanding the Dharma Seals and allowing an awareness of those truths to guide us breath by breath, moment by moment. I'll be back to talk more about this later.