Passing Understanding

Posted on September 3, 2010


I’m sitting in a recliner in a hospice unit listening to my father breathe out the last bits of his life. The last three days have been a blur, with arrangements and realizations and coming to terms all wound together like a tapestry washed and dried before it was finished. Now, in the quiet of the approaching night, I listen to him breathe and unwind threads.

It’s all we have left to connect, and it is changing, warning us that it is running out. We tick off the arrangements in our heads, talk together about how everyone is doing, and wonder at our peace. It isn’t just that this has been a long time coming. Head traumas, especially his kind, that run in death-defying decades, have whittled away at his immortality and left him different. Now the stroke has left him only those things none of us decide … heartbeat, breath, the subconscious struggle to remain. He is not in pain or hungry or thirsty, gently wrapped in the embrace of morphine and the approaching night. We wait in our different ways for death to come.

He gave us an odd gift. He wanted a pioneer funeral. A long-time history buff and child with his pulse on his prairie forefathers, he appreciated the previous century and sometimes felt lost in his own. He longed for the simplicity of hard work and family and living by straightforward moral codes. He wanted to be buried in a pine box, taken to the grave by his family after having been dressed by his sons, to have his children gather around him and wish him well as he moved forward. No long eulogies, no pompish funeral.

It has taken days to arrange something few others do. It isn’t legal to transport a body without a license to do so. It is hard to find a funeral director who doesn’t want to guilt you into purchasing more of his services to demonstrate your affection for your dearly departed. If you want a pine box, you have to build one. Cemeteries have codes. You get to contract with a grave digger and buy ropes to lower the casket yourself.

But do this we have, because he wanted it. And in this we’ve seen what he saw. The profound importance of keeping ourselves grounded in the realities of our mortality. As we’ve sawed and drilled and negotiated and coordinated, we’ve had to talk about how uncomfortable this person is with this aspect and what we can do about it, and how this other person remembers when he said this or that. We’ve been busy fulfilling a vision for someone who will never know, and in so doing, the tapestry is finishing, repaired by all these willing hands.

The last threads are tying off. As he breathes loudly beside me I tick off the details. White satin pleated around the top, because Mary felt strongly that even a closed casket should be nice. Jaclyn’s artistic renderings on the outside, burnt into the wood … whiskers of the cat he loved so much perfectly staring out between the whorls in the wood. The grave digger, who will hope that this will occur at a time that allows him to go to church on Sunday and attend his niece’s wedding Saturday night, and whose life we now work around too, because he’s become a friend. The lot number at the cemetery, burned into my mind … space 8 in lot 102, on the south side, closest in the four he owns to his parents. The image of my boys and my sister’s boys standing beside their father and uncles as they heft the handle-less coffin onto their shoulders and walk in silence much as their great great grandparents did. Two 4x4s and three black ropes lying over the open grave, around which we’ll stand for the service, and with which we’ll lower his casket to its resting place.

It isn’t as ingracious as it sounds, so far distant from our endless lines through funeral parlors and our quiet hand-wringing while others handle the details. We have all fallen into beds exhausted tonight, and I wait alone to hear his breath with my own drawing heavily, but we have talked and laughed and cried and worked, and dealt with this together. It has its own kind of simple grace, its perfect rightness.

As many children in my position do, I’ve been subconsciously planning my own funeral too. Three days ago, I thought this was eccentric; now I’m going to begin building my own casket. It will serve to store blankets while I’m alive, but my children will know that when I go they will take the blankets home and put me in the box. The imminence of our own mortality is incentive to live our lives more fully, not reason to shunt the details to others who do all of our healing for us and leave us broken.

They will have to contract with a grave digger and they will have to talk to each other about what makes them uncomfortable. They will have to find my deed for the cemetery plot and figure out which way my head is supposed to face. They will decide whether they want to write letters to me and leave them in the casket or sign their names on the outside like a yearbook party. And perhaps they will listen to me breathe and relive what part of my life they’ve shared while they come to terms with all their what-ifs and could-have-beens and walk away healed.

I will live to be 102, so they have a long time to think about it, and I have a long time to carve my coffin.  But peace has come in the dark hours carrying away my father’s breath, that peace “which passeth all understanding.” Like a torch, his understandings have passed to me as well.

Rest in peace, Dad.

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