My father passed away this year. It wasn’t completely unexpected. He had for the last few years been enduring the long-term effects of Parkinson’s and congestive heart failure. Then, last Thanksgiving, he was hit with a cocktail of illnesses strong enough to take down a healthy man half his age. In view of what was going on in his body, I was amazed that he held out as long as he did. Also surprising to me was the way in which my dad’s approaching death led to a kind of illumination in my own life. For a literary-minded guy who has always associated death with darkness, this “light” at the end of Dad’s life caught me off guard.
It’s been my observation that the approach of death often shines a light in the mind of the dying one, illuminating unfinished business that requires closure – apologies that need to be made, wrongs that need to be made right, fitful sighs and regrets that need to be laid to rest. But it seems Dad had few wrongs to right. He lived his life in constant vigilance against offense; he was quick to mend broken fences and wounded feelings. No, the light of death (can I call it that?) shone more on me in Dad’s final days. It was like lightning flashed over the complex, strained tangle of my life – my work worries, child-raising angst, and mounting bills – illuminating those realities but showing their true dimensions. It’s true that one can’t live in this world without having to put a wrench to the workaday nuts and bolts; but there’s more to life than that, and, as I was finding out, there’s more to death.
In the last months of Dad’s life, as he lay in a hospital bed all but incapacitated by West Nile virus, I found that the steady approach of death caused me to attend to every individual moment with him. I didn’t want his final days to slide by in one featureless block, so I started to pay particular attention to the little things that made him who he was – the way he moved his fingers, his facial expressions overarched by bristly eyebrows, his uncommon, made-up sayings I previously took for granted. These characteristics began to stand out crystal clear against the blurred background of familiarity, and they were precious, because it wasn’t just the soul of Dad that we loved; it was also his freckled hands, his wiry, tough hair, and his large, strong frame. It was the smell of his skin.
So, I held Dad’s hand, appreciating the feel of his skin against mine. I ran my fingers through his hair, pretending to straighten it. I kissed his forehead and rubbed his feet, loving the physical presence of one I knew would soon be laid to rest in the earth. And when Death came and knocked for the last time on Dad’s door, I was grateful that, instead of darkness being the most memorable thing about his passing, it was the light that stood out.
– Mike Simpson was born in Spain to missionary parents, and subsequently lived in Ecuador, England, California and finally East Texas. His early travels abroad blessed him with fluent Spanish, a certain restlessness and a strong aversion to guinea pigs. He is a married father with five children, a dog, some cats and a chicken.