It’s hard to know where to reflect on this year. I can’t get past the last four months. I have been in Maine since early November. My Dad’s health had been declining rapidly and I wanted to spend as much time with him as possible while also supporting optimal care for his rapidly changing needs.
My brothers and I watched my Dad’s last breaths dwindle in intensity and frequency for several days until he died on December 17th. In his last weeks, his life was like a fire that was no longer fed, slowly losing intensity and heat until the last fuel was exhausted and at last the flame extinguished. His physical decline had taken several months, the final step after several years of mental decline from Alzheimer’s. In the end, perhaps we should be grateful that it was slow enough to give us time to process, but not so prolonged as to extend the suffering of the decline from this disease. But it wasn’t easy. And it isn’t easy now as we face a future in which we will hold him strongly in our memories but will never again hold him in our arms for a hug.
Thomas’s mom died in September. She left the world quickly, suffering a heart attack on her way to physical therapy. She was supposed to be recovering from a back injury, not dying. We were unprepared and shocked. As we gathered with family to remember Susan, her life, and her death, we grew to appreciate life’s unpredictability and its offering. We all have a gift and we should not wait until tomorrow to offer it. Tomorrow will always be uncertain, but we have today and we should live it well.
Ironically, that same lesson has been paramount in the last five years as I offered my Dad support, love and friendship even as his dementia isolated him more and more. The past and the future no longer existed for my Dad but, until the last few weeks, he always had the present moment. It was a gift for me to practice being truly in the present moment with him. I learned to comment on the beauty of the beach without blathering on about a distant place or experience it evoked memories of. I learned to turn my face to the sun and to encourage Dad to do the same and then to be quiet while we soaked in the sun’s warmth and companionship. I learned that smiling or holding his hand could offer more comfort than my words. Over these caregiving years, I gave a lot and I received a lot. I am truly grateful. I am not sure where my energy and attention will be drawn next, but I am sure it will be informed by a new awareness and heightened appreciation for life, impermanence, frailty, honesty, integrity and trust.
Our family has had a year of many circumstantial changes too — graduation, new schools, new jobs, new sports, new homes. We have explored new foods, cultures and lifestyles and have more exploration ahead this winter and spring. But the year ahead will also bring another raft of changes that will require our family to lean back in on our resilience, openness, capacity to adapt, and willingness to rely on each other. We have a newfound appreciation for the quiet life of rural Maine as well as a newfound appreciation for the warmth and strength of our far-flung families.
And somehow, we are stronger, wiser, and more fully rooted on the ground and in our values in the wake of our loss and sadness. Perhaps it can be explained by the reading from 1 Corinthians 13 that Dad shared when Thomas and I were married and that I read at his funeral service. It ends with, “…these three remain faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
We will carry faith, hope and love into 2017 in both our hearts and hands … and we wish it for our family and friends too.