There is a thief in our midst
written by john c ashworth
“What were you doing up there, Dad?” His daughter asked quizzically, as she ran through her bedside checklist. A checklist well honed after almost thirty years of nursing. Trying hard not to blink.
“I was looking at all the lights…”
“I wanted to look around to see what everyone else was doing.”
He was atop the combine in the middle of the field, still working to get the remaining corn out of the ground before winter fully set in. A job that was taking so much longer this year because of all the damn rain. They literally finished the next day without him. Something they must learn to do now.
He lost his balance and tumbled to the half-cultivated field below, lying in wait for his fate and mine. There were no lights that any mere mortal might see. It was the middle of the day. I believe it was much more than that. Especially after witnessing his death.
I never got to see the imprint in the dust on the side of the combine where his hand had reached out sliding, in a futile attempt to stop something that seems so much bigger than all of us now. At first, I wanted to see that hand-print. It seemed important to revere. By the time I returned a week later for the funeral, the boys had disposed of its message quickly and efficiently. The same way so many of his personal things have been so efficiently removed from daily life.
The experience of his death five days later was a powerful one and in light of current circumstances, I’m even more grateful now than before that I was able to be there and hold his hand, while he strained with great loyalty to open his left eye and connect with me, so that I could tell him everything would be OK. Tell him how much I love him and how much he meant to me and how much he was like a second father to me.
I’ve never done that before. Watched someone take their last puff of breath, their body quickly beginning some kind of pale and mystical metamorphosis that happens so quickly and right before your eyes.
How do you walk away from that scene?
How do you go on?
How do you separate the spirit of his inspiration in your own life with the physical body that housed it for so long? I still don’t have an answer to that question; and I’m still eternally grateful to have been there.
I can still hear the prophetic puff of his last breath as it washed over Mom’s lips and the re-assurance her words provided as he made his way out somewhat ungracefully. An incredibly inspiring and brave act from his devoted partner. She was right there with him and right until the end. My wife was right there too, while the rest of his immediate family stood around his bed, his sons almost shouting their goodbyes through viscous cries that Mom admitted later she had never heard before.
We came back home that night to their apartment and stepped into the surreal and solace surroundings that a death leaves behind. Those were tender moments too. The time I spent that night going through some of the his things. Forgotten treasures living in desk drawers. Many of them for so many years. His spirit and his energy were still so close. I worried about his body in the morgue all night. It was hard to sleep.
Overall, I believe it was was a good death. Much better than my sister’s, which was proceeded by so much suffering. Years of surgeries and hospital stays and medicine that often did not work. Dad’s death was much different. And for that I am both grateful and fearful for all of us. He lived long and died short and we were all able to be there to see him off. And during that last night of his life, I had an experience so profound that it changed me forever. It transformed my perspective on death and dying, and on life. And it makes me incredibly sad, fearful, frustrated, angry, and anxious about every other person and family out there right now who is dealing with a different kind of death as a result of covid-19. They who won’t have the same opportunity I had.
This is a story that is repeating itself now in deafening silence and that needs to be told. Because it’s not just being there for the dying. It’s also the gift this experience provides for the living. A gift that is being stolen. Diverted in the face of this evil creature we call covid-19. Death is for all of us. Not just for the dying. And though we tend to avert ourselves from this idea in American culture, those of you who can relate to what I’m saying will know exactly what I’m talking about.
Death is for all of us; and the celebration of life that follows it’s course is even more vital; and yet everything is so different out there right now. Sick people are dying alone. Loved ones are grieving alone. Mourning alone. And this might just be the greatest tragedy and injustice of this crisis. A somewhat hidden loss. One that finds us later when we’re least expecting it. I used to too often fear losing those close to me. Suddenly I fear losing them shrouded in darkness, mystery, fear and chaos. Watching it happen through a pain of glass. That is no way to die. That is no way to live. That is no way to say goodbye to those we love as they exit from this great and mysterious world.
That presence I first felt enter the room about 45 minutes before my Dad’s death; the one that left me feeling like I didn’t want to leave the room until he was gone, was in fact the same one that returned to shepherd his soul away so quickly following that last puff of his breath…
That all-powerful, heavy, swirling, engulfing, comforting, magnificent, omnipresent and mysterious father of another kind…
…he stirred something in me that night that I would have missed had I not been there. Something universal, fleeting and unmistakable. Something that awakened in me a level of confidence and fortitude and wisdom that I carried forth from that room on that night, and that will NEVER leave me. Something no thief could ever take from me.
Godspeed to all of you…