Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Deathbed humor and going toward the light

My father taught American history for 19 years before quitting because he could no longer stand the administration. He loved this country, loved the Founding Fathers, loved democracy. He was a staunch conservative and a supporter of Goldwater. I remember sitting up with him to watch the election results in '80 when Reagan, Carter, and Anderson were running. I was looking through my middle-school journal not too long ago, and there was the entry about the evening: "I hope, I hope, I hope Reagan wins. Dad will be so upset if he doesn't." I was a Reagan supporter at age 11 because Dad was.

And in high school I was a Young Republican before my school even had such an organization. I was opinionated and, I can admit now, more of a parrot than a thinker. But I adored my father so much that I couldn't imagine he would ever have a wrong opinion.
He passed away four and a half years ago from cancer of the duodenum. He only had 10 months to "prepare" for death--as though anyone can ever truly do that aside from the few Randy Pausches of the world.

And although I always thought he was a funny man, he developed an incredible deathbed humor that made us all wonder if we really should be laughing, even when we couldn't help ourselves anyway.

A couple of weeks before he died, my beautiful and loving niece who had been living with my parents that summer sat on the bed next to Dad. She said, "Grandpa? Is there any advice you want to give me?"

Now, my father was always one to shell out advice and opinions, asked for or not. So Becca waited patiently to hear what he would say. His eyes were closed and his breathing was slow and even. After several minutes, she assumed he was asleep and hadn't even heard her question. As she eased herself off the bed to leave the room, he raised his hand off the bed. "Vote Republican," he said. And that was it.

The following week, as he weakened so much he could hardly even speak anymore and we had to move him to a hospital bed, we took turns sitting around his bed, talking to him, each other, singing to him--anything to fill the silence. At one point he spoke up, smiling, his eyes closed: "We're all the same. We're all the same."

He didn't explain what he meant, but I'd like to believe that, as death drew near, my father realized that, truly, we are all the same: democrat, republican, Christian, Jew, atheist, black, white, Hispanic. It doesn't matter when you're at the very end, does it? Whatever he meant, the thought obviously brought him peace.

Also around this time, several family members were seated around him one night, the lights out in his room, voices hushed. I opened the door from the hallway to go in to see him and he lifted his head to look my way, light from the hallway falling across his bed. He sighed as he laid his shaking head back on the pillow. "Wrong light," he said.

But I think he saw plenty of the right light at the end. Whatever our vote was yesterday, we're all the same underneath: all of us are mothers, daughters, fathers,and sons who just want to believe in our future.

So here's to all of us getting a little of that light ourselves.

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