My father died Thursday, in the scheme of things nothing remarkable. Almost 2.5 million Americans die each year, over 6,700 each day. Birth and death are the two human certainties (I’ll leave aside taxes), one joyfully anticipated, the other dreaded. Our metaphors for death — “a falling star,” “the birthday of eternity,” “wilted leaves on the tree of life,” “the next great adventure” — are but weak attempts to understand our most profound mystery.
He was 88, alert, engaged and active. Longevity does not make the prospect of the next day any less sweet, and my father approached each one with relish. He was the patriarch of a large clan: 11 children (the eldest, I bear his name) and 33 grandchildren. On Thanksgiving a small number of us gathered — well, OK, 50 — and he led the festivities, beginning dinner with a prayer and spending the evening telling the younger grandkids gentle stories of Ireland, leprechauns and spirits that moved in the dark hours of the night. Like all of our gatherings, it was loud and occasionally raucous, filled with talk, song and a keg of beer.
He had a cold, that’s all, but two days later found him at South Shore Hospital. At first the news seemed good: a respiratory infection. Some antibiotics, and he should be out in just a few days. But Monday things had worsened. Pneumonia had settled in, and nothing his doctors tried seemed able to reverse it. His children started to fly and drive in.
His life story reads like a cliche version of the American dream, from“wretched refuse” to success in two generations. His parents were immigrants, living in a cold-water flat in Hartford. His mother died when he was just a toddler, his father working as a greenskeeper while his older sisters and brother chipped in to run the household. At 18, he was in England and France fighting the war; the GI Bill helped him get his degree.
He took a job as a detail man for a pharmaceutical company and married when he was 30. Family took precedence.“No one on their deathbed regrets not spending more time at the office,” he would say. He reveled as his many children grew, went to college, married and helped make the brood even larger. He had an acute and curious intellect, a strong faith and a deep engagement with the larger world. Fairness, tolerance and justice were his values and he passed them on to his children, the success of his teaching reflected in their own lives and careers.
Early Wednesday morning his oxygen levels fell sharply. The doctors had proposed more extreme measures — intubation, for instance — but he refused. “Call my wife,” he said. “I’m ready to die.” When I stepped into his room just before dawn, I was the last of the children to arrive. “Glad you could make it,” he said dryly, his voice muffled from a respirator mask. Words failed or dissolved into tears as we each tried to say goodbye. In truth, no words were needed.
A nurse turned off his monitor and removed his mask.
“Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” Dylan Thomas urged his father, and I felt the same way, too. But my father had raged in the past, knowing when to pick his medical battles and always emerging the victor. This time he took a different course, a course he chose for himself.
Death in these circumstances comes with an almost agonizing slowness. My father received some morphine to ease the pain, occasionally closing his eyes but often awake and talking. He was pleased to hear the Obamacare website was back up. He took with equanimity Jacoby Ellsbury’s departure for the Yankees. We sang songs until he pointed out,“You’re repeating yourselves.” More and more of his extended family gathered.“Wow,” he said at one point, surveying the packed room.
“Daddy, you’re still teaching us,” one of my sisters said.“Teaching us how to die.”
“I love you all,” he said and then, to my mother who bent over him weeping,“No. Be happy.” He closed his eyes for the final time. About 14 hours later, at 2:46 a.m. he drew his last breath. No regrets.