Death is our most constant companion, a threat, a fate, an inevitability we dodge, cheat, avoid, and dance with on a daily basis. The ancient Greeks believed in a group they called the fates, three women who decided the length of our lives on the day of our birth. As we travel the tortuous path of our life we each see the lives of friends, family and acquaintances come to a close. Sometimes accidental, sometimes disease, sometimes acts of violence, sometimes aging, sometimes a combination of several causes, but always bringing us to the point of finding a way to say goodbye.
It is rare to have the opportunity to bid farewell while the recipient of the blessing is aware of our comment. In the course of nature’s way, we find ourselves with a painful hole in our emotions where a dear person once dwelt. A few decades ago my father told me one of the worst things about growing older was seeing the circle of friends shrink as the years passed. I have observed the truth of this observation, and along the way have developed an understanding of why so many senior citizens seem to carry a burden of sadness; a burden shadowing their smiles and laughter. We enter the world to be greeted by the warmth and love of our mother and father, but we leave the world alone, venturing into the unknown on our own.
The belief in a life after death is a common thread in human history, regardless of race, religion, or creed. While each of us has our own reasons for believing or not believing, the hope that something good awaits us can be a comfort when we are saying goodbye to someone dear to us. My father is 96 years old and in failing health. I remember when he came home from the Korean War with a medical discharge, and a prognosis of 6 months to live. Obviously he proved the doctors wrong, and survived kidney disease (one removed), heart disease (multiple bypass), and a few more additional scrapes to live a full life of hunting, fishing, and working as a detective. He has led an active life, including acting as care giver to my mother as she spent almost two decades sinking beneath the sad tides of Alzheimer’s until she at last surrendered.
It is difficult to see the slow decline as my father has lost the use of his hands, his sight, and his ability to walk. It is painful to see him unable to take care of himself, yet unable to find his way to that final slumber he prays for each day. A long productive life is a blessing beyond measure, but a long life which offers only pain and suffering, both physical and emotional, is heart wrenching. I grew up in the knowledge that my father might not be there at any time; prepared to scatter his ashes over the land and water he loved. Our paths have separated us for most of my adult life, my careers taking me on my own journey, making our time together limited to a few days each year, and each of those visits ending in tears for us both, knowing it might be our last parting. I have said goodbye many times, but I know how much it will hurt when my brother, who is caring for my father, calls to tell me he has begun his journey into the unknown that awaits us all.
As I plan my next visit, I can’t help wondering if it will be our last; wondering if he will still be there when I arrive. It weighs heavy on my heart, even after a lifetime of preparation; one more member of my circle of friends who will no longer be with me when I say my last goodbye to him.