Roger Ebert is gone. Another friend, cancer now uncontrollable, is in “palliative care.” And a beloved relation called a couple of weeks ago to make sure she had all of my contact info right—she spends more time in the hospital than at home now. And she wants to make sure the man handling her estate can send me a few things…
So…it’s official. I am at that age when people I love are beginning to leave me behind more and more often. And the famous actors, writers, directors and other creative visionaries whose e whose works are cherished maps and travel guides to my own journey are heading back home at an alarming rate.
When they started running all of Robert Redford’s movies on the Sundance Channel one by one recently, I told friends that I hoped this wasn’t a sign that they knew something we didn’t about Bob. When he goes…I’ll feel it on soooo many levels. Not the way I felt when Roger left us, but…for me, Bob was the gorgeous, golden haired poster boy for the “Pay It Forward” principle. And godfather to some of my Hopi relations, too, often sitting there in the kiva or plaza looking too beautiful to be real in the blast furnace heat of a reservation summer day.
Old people always say, “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore,” but they really don’t make ‘em like Redford anymore. He always seemed to be pining for the same simpler and nobler America beneath the crazier, more absent-minded one we live in now. There is a moment in A River Runs Through it when the camera flies over a hill to offer a panoramic view of some of the Creator’s best work. I cry every time I see it. And I cry at the end when Redford’s own voice reminds me that I, too, am “…haunted by waters.”
I used to fish with my father, too. And I know it was never about the fish or the fishing, those trips into the wilderness. My dad taught me everything I needed to know about life as we sat on the banks and in the boats and around the fires. And I knew that, somehow, even as the little whippersnapper I was back then—I knew it. And knew enough to cherish it, too—children sometimes miss that stuff, but I got it. And I’m so glad—he was, too. Bless him.
They keep going and going, the people who taught me the most important life lessons of all. And having almost left here myself two years ago, I’m more aware than I used to be that I, too, have reached the time of life when the finish line is actually “visible,” in a strange way.
When you’re 20, you figure you have at least another 40 or 50 years to go. When you’re 60…you think about what you thought when you were 20, and you realize that those years you were banking on have come and gone.
I also learned from being so ill and watching others who were very ill slip away from me a little bit more every day that the process of dying physically isn’t as scary as I thought. There comes a time when the loved one is so much changed and so drowsy and listless that they’re already gone.
I’ve never seen anyone struggle. I’ve never seen anyone panic. At the very end, they just stop breathing almost as if they’ve decided that it’s time to stop working so hard. It’s very logical and simple, at that point. Not for the fully living, but for that one in the bed for whom breathing has become such a chore…stopping seems like the right thing to do, at some point.
Our job is to say we understand that. And face that awful realization, after, that maybe we really didn’t.
Those “warning” calls and emails meant to prepare us, never really do. I never just say, “Oh, okay, gotcha.” I always get mad. And then sad. And then I try to find some sort of lesson or beauty in it. Bravery, perhaps—I have a feeling people facing the end get sick of being told how brave they are, though.
I have learned to answer by saying I’ll be there for them. That I’ll be thinking of them—I quit saying I’d pray for them because I’ve never been sure what to pray for at the end. There’s a natural process taking place that is too sacred to argue with, which is, I think, what some prayers really are. The loved one saying, “Why are you doing this to me?” and wanting a reprieve of some kind.
But when the time comes…you know it. And watch in the same kind of wonder as we watch babies being born. The beginning and end of life are both remarkably efficient and matter-of-fact. Things turn on and shut off just as they’re supposed to most of the time. Even when it goes wrong…it’s really right.
And all we can do is back off. And let it be.
This will be one of my saddest years, given the news I’ve had to “absorb” recently. But…somehow everything is far more intensely beautiful to me these days—a juicy apple, my daughter’s laugh, the pups racing through the house chasing each other, my favorite movies, the songs that helped me understand what the hell had just happened…
Perhaps the most valuable gift the dying offer is a heightened awareness of the life they’re leaving. And that as the Lord taketh away—no, I’m not really a believer but…it’s an apt description somehow now--you’re left to use what you’ve learned from all those much missed ones in more meaningful ways than you had to when they were here.
It’s like you’re being called upon to prove that Earth School works. And to recognize that you’ve had some incredible teachers.
Graduation is still a few year away for me. But the commencement speeches, it seems, have begun. One by one, they’re saying their own special goodbyes as they cross that last stage on their way into the “Great Beyond.”
I wonder if they’ll really be there to greet me when my turn comes?