A Useful Illusion

Posted on May 27, 2012


Cross-posted at Wheat and Tares.

My dad is dead.

He died the year before last. He lived for 68 years and he was cranky for a lot of it. When he died nobody was particularly sorry, including him. I know, because I was there.

In the silence of the hospice room, after all our rushed arrangements – long days of preparation between a massive stroke that assured his mortality and his final departure now quietly complete – I watched him breathe and tried to come to terms with his life. When the call came three days before, I had cried, leaning over the steering wheel outside the clock repair shop a thousand miles away, shocked that my father was leaving, then angry that he never set things right. My sister thought I should start right away for Kansas (other sisters in Texas and California would shortly be on their way). I told her I’d get things together to do so, but I puttered angrily for the rest of the day, then told myself I needed a good night’s rest before starting the 15-hour drive.

I was glad I did. I needed the chance to think about his life. I needed to let go of his illusion, and mine.

When my children were little and I home schooled, I largely avoided the art projects so common in public grade schools. I had little patience for “junk crafts” – paper plates and painted macaroni that cluttered our home and found their way to the garbage in days. We tried to learn by building things that would last, but I can’t recall any of them now. There was the trip to see Thomas the Tank Engine, the weekly visits to the zoo, the museums and the libraries and the lake. Like endless meals prepared with precision, eaten, and forgotten, there are no monuments to our life then – nothing to last. It is all an illusion now, living only in my memory, clothed either with my peace or my resentment.

To say that my father and I didn’t see eye-to-eye would be understated. He was angry for most of my childhood, unpredictable, and frightening. When I was a teen he thought I was pretentious, over-educated, and annoying, and he said so. When I was an adult he was unsure I would ever get the hang of parenting, saving, or managing life. In short, he was afraid I would be like him, and never build anything to last. We never talked about that.

In my day of puttering, faced with the realization that Dad and I would never have that vital conversation, I tried to figure out why his life meant something, because hidden in that something would be the kernel of meaning for mine. I remembered that I had a junk car to drive through high school and my first year of college, and that it always had gas in it. I remembered him smiling and telling me to remember who I was as I went out the door to work or on a date. I remembered his awkward hugs, his work-worn hands snagging the backs my nylon blouses, the deep sighs to clear his frustration at the lack of depth perception seeing with one eye left him. I remembered his thousand oft-quoted truisms: “Who on a galloping horse would notice?” and “Will it really matter in 20 years?” and “Obedience Matters.”

When I was in college I changed my major from engineering to English and History (capitalized to assert their permanence) because I already had a sense that building things was less lasting than recording things. I read of fleets that ruled the world, then fell to upstart nations; emperors who marched across mountains and carved a place of permanence, then died suddenly in youth to leave their empires divided by generals. I read the thoughts of great writers, studied the evolution of language, and tried my hand at creating words that would last. Nothing has.

I realized that his life was a long series of forgotten meals and junk crafts, practicing moments for a monument that existed only in our memories. Time rolled forward, sweeping along a lonely boy who lost his best friend to suicide in his teens, carrying him past the aunt who predicted that he would spend his life in prison, by the adoring mother and the distant father, through the military, marriage, children, accidents one upon another stripping away his body’s functioning, jobs lost, dreams tried and failed, three or four passes by Death’s door, always adjusting to a new view of his useful illusion, structured to let him experience – it all. I realized in that day that all that mattered was the memory, and it didn’t depend on his explanation or apology. I could clothe it in resentment or peace, and that was the only permanence it would have.

So as I sat in that silent hospice room, no more clicking monitors or humming machines, just he and I waiting for Death, I thanked God for giving me what I most wanted with Dad: the opportunity to watch him pass from the illusion back to reality. Freed from his body and finally able to hear me, as he left I wanted to say that I loved him, that I forgave him, that I understood that this was not the real thing, and that I looked forward to meeting him on better terms. I hadn’t long to wait.

I wrote to him, leaned back in my chair, and ten minutes later his breath caught. I stood, walked to the bed, and held his hand. “Dad?” I said, tentatively. He was still and I stared at him, almost not recognizing him, his form already seeming lifeless and foreign. He suddenly drew a sharp breath and he was finished. I could feel him there, though, more tangibly than moments before. I looked up and began talking to him, but there was an impatience that was palpable and unmistakably Dad. There was also a vibrancy I hadn’t felt from him since I was a child. He was free, and thrilled about it.

“Dad? I know you’re in a hurry. I want you to hear something from me before you go. I understand. I love you. I’ll see you when I get there.” My words tumbled out, trying to hold him for a moment, to feel something from him, a change, a sense of his more permanent self, a reassurance that in that freer self, he loved me better. He waited, I could feel it, but there was an incredible urgency about him. He had been ready to go for so long, living here under duress it had seemed for years, and there was a crowd pressing almost outside my sensibility, beckoning him to hurry up. They had been waiting too, indescribably happy, and their yearning pulled at him, almost reproaching me for holding him.

“Go!” I said with a laugh. And he was gone. The veil closed its illusion back around me. I laid down the hand I had been holding and looked back at his body. There was work to do.

At the funeral scores of friends who drove to the lonely prairie graveyard with only hours notice stood and celebrated his life. He was an interesting man, they all agreed, twisting the language playfully, intense in his faith, willing to give the shirt off his back to help anyone, a mentor to more than I had realized. I listened as a different person. I was finally at peace. We weren’t sorry he was gone. We were glad he lived.

Hugh Nibley, after a youthful brush with Death, commented that life is not about learning, because we will learn more in the first five minutes after we die than we did in a whole lifetime. Life, to him, was about repenting and forgiving, coming to the atonement and being renewed within, having an experience made possible only by living this frail existence fully recognizing that it lived within something much larger and grander. After that realization he, like most people who’ve brushed against Death, embraced the opportunity of his days fearlessly, with the joyful abandon of someone who has nothing to lose.

As I’ve thought about Death, watched my father pass through it, and considered what my experiences at the veil mean about Life, I’m consumed with joy at this imperfect place, all paper plates and painted macaroni. Its impermanence is a great gift, a final nose-thumbing at the Great Deceiver who roars at us impotently as our Father-God sweeps us back to him unmarred at its conclusion. Reaching through the veil from time to time, he grips our hands with permanence to reassure us: “Be at peace; it’s a useful illusion, but it’s just an illusion.”

Because I was there, I know. My Dad is alive.

Who is alive for you, though physically gone?

Who lives in your memory (clothed either with peace or resentment)?

And how do you feel about Life and Death?

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