Today marks one week since my 85-year old father passed from this world. It is the first time someone in my inner circle has died, and its weird, sad gentleness and beauty is fresh in me still.
I am mystified by my encounter with death at such close range. I’ve heard so much about “Death” and have thought plenty about it — and of course it’s everywhere if you start looking. But this experience was so sweet and light, that one week later, I wonder if it was all a dream.
In the last decade, I notice that I feel a little sad when a baby is born, and a little joyous when someone dies. I kind of hate to admit that in writing . . . it sounds rather callous. But I think as I’ve slowly matured through the psychological ravages of lost innocence, I’m painfully aware that the truly difficult suffering that is an intrinsic part of human life and growth. I know the grinding pain that rips up the heart and spits it out stronger and burning, aware that this is what is part of what is in store for the tender infant who requires assistance for every aspect of survival. So I feel a sadness when someone is born.
And when someone dies?
My father lived in an era and a culture where “being of use” was a primary value. He loved to work hard; in fact, did not how to do otherwise. He provided for his children, which was how he showed his love. Recently my sister asked him: when would he be ready to go, to die? “When I’m no longer useful,” he replied, as he tottered around, by now barely able to tie his shoes.
A brilliant man, with a mechanical mind that gloried in solving problems, in many ways my father exemplified the age of industrialization and technology that was ever striving for a better, more efficient way to do things. I could always count on him to help me fix anything that was broken. Anything material, that is.
He was also a maverick, in a quiet but powerful way. He liked going against the grain, doing things the wacky way, not conforming — in the true spirit of the radical Mormon pioneer culture of which he was a part.
In the last five to seven years of his life, he slowly lost his brilliant problem-solving mind to some kind of dementia. He also went from someone who had a tendency to obsess, worry, and ever yearn toward some ideal imagined future, to someone who was only there right in that exact moment, who was often funny and fundamentally sweet and very, very grateful. And someone who, rather than being ‘useful,’ was someone we got to care for. It was as if his true nature was revealed as the layers of conditioned mind patterns were stripped away.
I wondered to my sister a few days ago that I was not feeling deep grief. I’ve cried plenty, but there has been a joy and sweetness to all my tears. She wisely retorted that he didn't leave a gaping hole in my life. Emotionally, this is true. I know he loved me dearly, but, as many men of his age, he did not relate to others with a vulnerable and open heart.
Yet the very real process of my father’s death was one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had in my 52 short years. My four siblings, their spouses and children and my mother were drawn together in a profound way that I’d never felt before. My youngest sister took him into her home after a two-night emergency stay in the hospital, and nine days later (after a short recovery where he joined us for a lovely Thanksgiving), he drew his last breath there, some time between 6:30 at 8:45 in the evening. No one was attending him.
In true pioneer spirit style, we found a lovely pine casket for $50, and my brother (and his family and my mother), drove my father’s body up to our family ranch at Bear Lake on Thursday morning — the casket wrapped in a blue tarp on a small flatbed trailer, camouflaged by six big garbage bags full of leaves.
In the red building that was built as a garage to house the first automobiles on the ranch, we lifted my father’s body out of the pine box and onto the trailer bed. My brother, his wife, my other brother, younger sister, and our brother-in-law took off the clothes he’d died in and dressed him in beautiful, clean white temple clothes, complete with dashing pleated white cape and green satin embroidered apron. I arranged the bedding in the pine box, all cozy.
To handle the once-ensouled flesh of a person who has been around all your life and been such a huge influence on your very existence, but now is like — dare I say — chicken from the store, is bizarre. And yet so natural, and good and right. And no doubt, therapeutic and transformative in ways I have yet to understand. Clearly that flesh was not my father, though it housed him well for 85 years.
The slow, three-mile caravan to Laketown cemetery was beautiful. The clearing late afternoon December skies were beautiful. The intimate, utterly impromptu and perfectly authentic graveside ceremony was beautiful. Four of us improvised with climbing rope how we were going to lower the pine box six feet down into the vault that my sister’s husband had picked up in his truck that morning from Montpelier, Idaho on the north end of the lake. With great concentration, we successfully lowered the casket to its final resting place. And when it came time for the backhoe tractor to start dumping great loads of dirt to fill in the grave, we hung out, chatting and watching. Then my sister-in-law asked to borrow the grave-digger’s shovel, got in and started smoothing out dirt herself, and the kids and soon other adults merrily followed suit.
My father would have loved that burial. It was not the usual gig. His body was laid to rest next to his beloved grandparents. His family that remained living on this earth were filled on that day with profound love and caring for each other, working together to honor his passing and to get the job done right. As a friend so perceptively wrote in an e-mail to me upon hearing about his burial, “The power of the transcendent is with you! Love beyond all form; your father’s final blessing is in his release to pure energy.”
And why do I feel joy when somebody dies?
They are emancipated. They are released from this dream and pass through the threshing hold, returning to whence they came. I’ve felt my father’s presence this past week, and had a vivid dream of him now as a whole and complete person. The hole in my heart that I felt when he was alive has somehow, mysteriously been filled. And it’s filled with joy.