The text came when I’d already crawled in bed after an exhausting day of meetings.
I almost didn’t read it.
I almost left it until morning.
Lisa, I’m here at Mom and Dad’s.
I think you should come.
He likely won’t make it through the night.
I laid there in the dark for a moment, almost upset that I’d read it. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to be there for this – the end. I didn’t want to see my dad like that. I didn’t want to do any of this.
On the long drive down to my folks’ place, a wash of fear swept over me. What if this – how my dad was now – what if this was how I remembered him? I didn’t want that memory to be the one that came to mind when someone mentioned my dad years from now. I wanted to remember him as the self-reliant, confident, kind man that he was before Alzheimer’s. I didn’t want to recall their guest room with the hospital bed, the wheelchair, him in his hospital gown. I didn’t want to watch my father slip away from me, leaving me without a dad to lean on for the rest of my life.
I think we’re often like that with things in life that fill a need for us. We don’t want them to change, and if they do, we don’t want to witness it. I think it’s why we work so hard to “fix” the people in our lives who’ve changed into something other than our ideal of who they could or should be. I think it’s why we avoid the mirror as we get older; it’s easier to believe we are still as we once were. As long as we don’t really look, really acknowledge it, we can continue as we see ourselves in our own mind’s eye in whatever ideal form we want to believe is still true.
We spent the night sitting vigil at my father’s bedside, telling stories of some of our favorite memories of him. We laughed, we talked, we cried. But we did it together as a family. And when Dad’s breathing would stop for what seemed like forever, we’d grow silent and listen, wondering if this was the moment we’d have to say goodbye. We held his hand, kissed his cheek and told him we loved him. It was one of the hardest nights I’ve been through, but it was also one I wouldn’t have wanted to miss.
There is a purity that comes into our experience when we are willing to see it for all that it is, to face the hard parts as well as the good. And when we avoid the difficult part of our relationships, the harder, uglier side of life, we may get to keep a prettier picture in our head, but we lose out on experiencing the full beauty of the journey. I learned that night that there is beauty and poignancy that will never be exposed through the easy moments in life; we only discover those when we show up and face the hard parts with courage – even when we don’t want to.
As I drove back home the next morning, I felt peace. Not because I was losing my father but because I’d been there for him, I’d shown up for the hard stuff, and I would carry with me the complete memory of him – all of it. I’d remember him as a young man heading out to work while I stayed home with mom. I’d recall him teaching me to drive and giving me advice about boys when I was a teen. I’d have my memories of him talking to my daughter as she followed him around his yard. And I’d hold close the memory of our family gathered around him, making sure he wasn’t alone in this last step of life. The whole of that memory is far better, far more precious, than any single memory would ever be.
You can find this essay on HuffingtonPost as well.