Reflections on a life well lived

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He was one of the best men I’ve ever known. He taught me to solder, to ride a bike, what to shout when a can of tomatoes falls on a bare toe, and how to be an actual man. A man who cares and believes in you, who builds you up by showing you how men should live by living that way himself.

My father was funny and smart. He had a great deep bass voice that could make anyone feel welcome or comfort them in difficult times. He was endlessly pragmatic, could do all of Heinlein’s list of things a competent man should be able to do, and he was kind. He was not sentimental, but he was careful in the sense of being full of caring.

My dad lived nearly 92 years, surviving the Great Depression, marriage to my wonderful mother, World War II, smart assed teenagers, and retirement for thirty years. He and my mom traveled around the country, marveling at autumn colors and streams and mountains for years until she began to lose herself into Dr. Alzheimer’s little nightmare.

With a great deal of help from my sister, Dad cared for mom until she died six years ago. When she passed away he was 85. Caring for her nearly killed him too, I think, but he finished the job like he did everything: it needed doing and he simply did it.

A few years ago Dad met a delightful lady named Betty and they became very close friends, doing everything together. She passed away in July, and I think Dad simply realized he was ready to get off the ride.

My dad died last week at nearly the age of 92. He’d been in excellent health until Betty died, and then it all changed. The last few months have been hard for all of us and I think they were for him too.

But like he did everything, it had to be done, and he just did it.

We’ll miss you Dad. I’m proud of you. I’ll try to be as good a man as you showed me how to be.

Light, Life, and the Elephant in the Room

It was the wheels on the carriage supporting her open coffin that led me to these thoughts, sitting there among the other family members. I looked back along her lifeline — the one I’d been discovering over the last frantic few days of scanning family photos, seeing her life for the first time as more than the caricature age had made of the beautiful, vibrant person she was. She’d been born, played, learned. She had loved and had been loved. She had laughed and wept, been filled with the love and loneliness and joy and sorrow that comes to all of us — if we’re lucky.

She had lived. I knew it intellectually. But there it was — a life, full of thrills and crises and loves and losses and joy.

helen-teenSitting there streaming my own tears and choking on a lump in my throat among the whimpers and sniffles and whispers of those around me, I thought of the inevitability of the process of life. Those wheels, straight and strong and rubbery and sure, supported her there in still silence, ready to go. Those wheels and myself and most of the men around me were the last to carry her to rest, she who had flared as a bright flame of baby and girl and woman, giving off sparks of herself to everyone she came close enough to ignite or to see. Now the direct, immediate light of her was gone, soon to be quenched forever in the earth from which it came. But we still carry bits of her in us, now only as memories to be mulled and treasured.

What did she ponder alone in the wee hours of the night, sleepless and unable to still that bright mind as she felt her life slipping inexorably toward the end? Did she hope it would be quick or soon? Was she angry or bitter that her dimming light would be so ignobly extinguished? I’m sure she was; I’m certain she thought constantly about the unfairness of it — to herself and to her family.

Without doubt she remembered people she knew, had known, might have met. Great- and great-great- and even greater grandchildren she would never hold, and endless ancestors thereafter could never know. I’d have to guess that she imagined looking down on the world from above to see our lives going on, watching the world turn, carrying on with its endlessly bustling, intertwining lives.

What if, at the moment of her conception, she could have seen the world as she did when death neared, would she have chosen not to live? Of course not. There certainly are those whose lives are so empty of meaning and so painful that they would choose never to have lived, but not her. She had lived, drinking fully of the fuel of life, stoking her fiery luminance to shed far and wide. Without her, dozens of those remembering her today would never be and the world would be much dimmed in many ways.

No, her life had been worth all the pain and fear and uncertainty of the cancer that spread inside her, worth every bit of the sorrow she’d felt as those she’d loved had gone — parents, sister, friends. Babies and birds and puppies and flowers, candy and loving and giving birth — the joys of these brightened even that what she felt now.

Death is the enormous black elephant glowering in everyone’s living room. But there is living to do in that room, and the dark bulk looming there is easy to ignore, as it must be. Being born leads to its cold embrace as surely as it does to the joy of jumping into piles of autumn leaves and “I hate you!” door slamming and “I love you” and cuddling your babies. Life goes on — until it doesn’t.

But those sparks? They go on forever.

We’ll miss you Helen. We’ll remember your light. Thank you for sharing it with us.