Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Willing Life

The will to live—it’s an unfathomable thing. What drives it? I mean there are days when the news is so grim, the air so cold, and the people we love so unlovable that it’s easy to wonder why we bother.

But sometimes, something—faith, hope, or belief in the power of human relationships—must urge us to stay the course. When I arrived at the hospital last Friday, six days after I had left, I was prepared for the worst. I had spoken with my brother, Chris, the day before, and for the first time he had sounded distraught. It had been a bad day. Dad was grey, puffy, unshaven, sedated, and hadn’t been able to tolerate even a few minutes of breathing on his own. The doctors were beginning to talk about a tracheotomy.

Yet, when I called Chris on Friday afternoon, as my cab pulled up to the hospital entrance, he told me the tide had turned. Dad was awake, alert, and communicating with nods, even small smiles. The nurses had bathed him and shaved him as much as they could around the breathing tube. I walked into the ICU and experienced it for myself. His eyes were only half open, but they knew me and I could see them shine and crinkle the way they always did when Dad was happy. He was still there.

Somehow I knew that it was time to tell him the many things that I had never taken the opportunity to tell him before. I talked to him about what a good dad he was. And thanked him for the many lessons he had taught me—like the significance of ethical behavior, honesty, civic responsibility, education, and lifelong friendships. I reminded him about the special moments we had had in our family because of him: the trips to Sea Island, our Halloween costumes, summers in Stone Harbor, my backyard wedding reception, and the way he had embarrassed us as kids by singing “California, Here I Come” in the jet-way before a flight to San Francisco 38 years ago.

I could tell that he heard me, and it seemed that my words brought him some contentment. I hope that they formed beautiful pictures for his mind’s eye to remember as he navigated those last hours. I wonder if he rallied Friday because he knew I was coming and he wanted to hear what I had to say.

Dad once told me that his mother, who died of breast cancer when he was 25, had willed herself to live so that she could be there for her daughter’s wedding day. That is the only real image that I have of my grandmother...determined. Maybe he was determined too.

The prospect of death does its mean duty. I picture it like a mother saying “You’ll thank me for this someday.” I am thankful for the fear that surfaced when Dad’s surgery lasted 5 hours instead of 2. I am grateful that I had a heads-up, and that his strong will was to live long enough for me to see him, and that I had the good fortune to be able to tell him that I loved him, and to remind him of his legacy—two children and nine grandchildren—one of whom peacefully awaited his company.

The will to live is unfathomable. Death, a mystery. The only thing that we can truly know is that love is the reason we hurt, and why we will life. And that is not a bad thing.

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