Having turned 50 some time ago, my thoughts have turned from “What can I aspire to?” to “Have I done OK? Do I have any regrets?” and finally, “How do I want to leave?”
It’s a morbid thought, for sure, and without the comfort of specific religious dogma to answer what comes next, it’s a heady mixture both frightening and exciting. You’d think being a philosophy major in college would give me a broad view of human existence, my role in the universe, and a vast array of strategies with which to approach the end. You’d be wrong.
Looking to examples of loved ones lost greatly helps inform my views on death. Earlier this winter, I attended my dear Aunt Shirley’s funeral in very cold Minneapolis. She had been in failing health, and by many accounts, at 92, she was ready. Her children, her minister, her good friends all reiterated her stated desire to leave, not in an attempt to escape her physical realm, but in an acceptance that she had accomplished much in her 92 years and felt this was an appropriate time to move to the next stage of human existence (or post-existence?). The calm resolve she had conveyed in this decision was comforting and inspiring.
Her spiritual world was rich with the promise of life beyond. And while she was unclear on all the details, she took great comfort in what lay ahead. She spent her final months with loved ones, still keeping up on the details of grandkids, great-grandkids, nieces, nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews. As her health deteriorated through a stroke and then opportunistic ailments, she embraced the next world, told her family she was ready and prayed with her minister that she be taken soon.
When she shed her mortal coil, I have no doubt it was with great joy and acceptance. This exuberance extended into all aspects of her funeral service, where her sense of peace blanketed us all in joy and remembrance. Tears and laughter were in abundance as we recounted her life, especially in the gentle details.
A few years ago a dear uncle died. He was a physician, so when the cancer diagnosis was confirmed, he charted out his remaining trajectory and calmly scheduled time with his loved ones. Having lost his wife just a couple years prior, he too was embracing the future with love and acceptance. In his final days, as he was drifting in and out of lucidness with his son at his side, a couple came to visit with a vintage bottle of wine.
Seeing their arrival, my uncle perked up as they uncorked the bottle and poured him a glass.
“Dad,” his son admonished, “with all your medicines, I don’t think alcohol is a good idea.”
My uncle smiled and replied “Eh, what’s the worst that can happen?” as he laughed weakly and sipped the exotic flavors. A few days later he was gone, but fulfilled.
This story elicited great laughs and tears when recounted at his service.
Through these examples I could tell a good death is the reward for a life well and fully lived. I lost my father suddenly when he was only 66, hardly ready to accept death’s warm embrace and still looking forward to decades of grandfatherhood, then great-grandfatherhood. It’s hard to say if he would have followed the path of his older brother or his sister-in-law, but I take great solace that he and I had long since healed the necessary rift brought on by my adolescence, and much to his credit, he had abandoned the aggressive and specific goals he’d held over me, his first-born son. That left me with the gift of pure grieving, unsullied by things I wish we had resolved.
As for me, I hope to finish out my days spending great times with friends and family, letting life’s disappointments recede from view where they no longer can block the embrace of the things that matter. I want forgiveness for all slights and misunderstandings to which I’ve been a party. I want to watch grandchildren take their first steps (hint to my kids: Don’t tell me they’ve actually already been walking for weeks), watch them grow up with the same challenges we had, but with newer technology to confound parental control, and ultimately start families of their own.
I want to enjoy good health late in life when I have time to finally learn things I’ve put off for years (animation? welding? comparative religions?).
But mostly, I want to be ready for whatever lies ahead. Not that I presume to know that destiny (note to self: Prep email inbox for a surfeit of certain answers to this from people of great certainty), but to have a sense that my physical job is done, the trajectory of my memories and DNA are ensconced, in some measure, in my loved ones.
With this peace I so surely desire, I can ask nature, as my aunt and uncle did, to take me and to bless those I leave behind.