Lessons in a father’s death

 

The Boston Globe

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.

Read more From Our Inbox stories from the Miami Herald

  • Earn more, be happy by coming of age in boom times

    It’s bad luck to be born 20 years before a time of high unemployment. It affects your income when you enter the workforce, naturally, but that’s not all. It can keep your earnings relatively low — and chip away at your health and happiness, as well — for a lifetime.

  • Five reasons why China has no friends

    In 2010, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told a gathering of Asian countries that the United States “has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea.”

  • VA nominee will find out that government isn’t Procter & Gamble

    For 33 years, Robert McDonald rose through the ranks of brand managers and junior executives at Procter & Gamble, overseeing international operations in Canada and Asia for the consumer goods giant before taking charge as CEO in 2009. President Obama has named the West Point graduate to head the scandal-plagued Department of Veterans Affairs, which is reeling from revelations that officials had falsified records and concealed extraordinary waiting times for patients seeking treatment. If the problems at the VA stemmed from failures of branding and salesmanship, McDonald would be a fine choice. Unfortunately, they do not.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category