Words at the Starting Gate

When I talk with a person about his own death, especially when it is my own father, I feel like a race car driver having to make split-second decisions en route to the finish line.  Before letting my answer race out of my mouth,  I have to take in exactly what a person is saying and how they are bringing this subject up.  With my few seconds to answer, I have to consider how deeply they want to pursue the subject, why they are bringing it up, and what words and intonation I should use so I will not be evasive or inauthentic. I do not want to run out of gas or careen into a wall.

This time it was in fact my own father, so my emotions  came into play too before my brain gave me the all-ready signal. And now, as I write about it, I am especially self-conscious about my choice of words knowing that he, one of my blog followers, may be reading this along with everyone else who has alighted on this post.(Never fear, I did get his permission.)

Earlier in the day, my 92-year-old dad and I had covered our usual subjects, such as what good books to read, how he maintains his good health working out at the gym and eating the right foods, and what new activities I have engaged in. As I hung up, I remembered he had said something about feeling “so-so” and I wondered vaguely why he said that.

As if in response to my picking up on that, he rang again and broached the subject very cautiously by saying, “I think a lot about my age these days, but I don’t know if I should discuss this with my own daughter, especially because you are a chaplain.” I thought how ironic. It’s not like he was exploiting my expertise. But that was what he thought, because he went on, “You know, I don’t want to be like a person at a party who meets a doctor and then asks him about this or that pain you have.”

“Gosh no, not at all Dad.” Funny (but understandable) how the people we most should be sharing our thoughts about death with are the ones we most hesitate to do so with. It is one thing to attend a Death Cafe or peek at the dark humor Tweets of funeral directors, quite another to deal with the emotionally-laden prospect of a loved one’s death, whether imminent or remote. I felt like adding, “if not with your children, with who then?” Instead, I waited, which gave me time to think about what he had said about death in the past, such as that he is not afraid of it.

He continued, “I wonder when it is going to hit me. I wonder how it will happen.” I think to myself, I sometimes wonder the same thing. I also wonder whether I will die before or after my husband, whether before or after my brother.

“What can I do about it? Should I just not think about it?” Dad asked. Just to see if he had changed his view,I asked him if he was afraid. “I’m not afraid. It’s just like going to sleep, only for a really long time, that’s all. But I like being here and want to stay.”

At first I thought, what can I say to his question? It’s such an unanswerable one. And although what I said may not seem novel to most if not all of my readers, the fact that it was between a father and daughter, and that we were in a genuine moment, brought our cars in tandem: “Live in the moment, Dad.” He said that was a good answer and a great way to conclude that phone call. I celebrate how he and I were living completely in the moment during that conversation. Dad, may there be many more such moments for you before you cruise past the ultimate finish line.

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