A few weeks ago I was drinking beer and eating meatballs with a new friend in a city I didn’t live in. There’s something about the semi-anonymity of a new face you know you won’t have to see every day afterward that invites people to delve into the deep topics that maybe they don’t want to bring up with someone they’re entangled with. Small talk quickly slid into the upcoming holidays and the fact that this new friend’s father was dying.
After a terminal diagnosis his father had somewhere between six months and a year to live. Or maybe a little more. Or maybe treatment would work and he could live six years. Or ten. Or sixteen.
What does one do when their parent likely has only a few months to live? Months during which there will be an inevitable, jagged decline in their mental facilities and ability to live their normal life?
What needs to be heard and what needs to be said in that time? What do we owe each other once the clock is ticking loudly enough that it can’t be ignored any longer?
I didn’t tell him that this was a topic that had been weighing on my mind. Heavily. I just picked at my cuticles under the table and did not say what I wasn’t ready to talk about yet. It’s so much easier to talk about someone else, or pretend you’re just talking about someone else.
When you think of someone who has months to live, don’t you think of people living out their final wishes? All those dreams they hadn’t yet gotten around to. The trip to the pyramids at Giza. Going skydiving. A family reunion. The wedding dates moved up. Hanging on until they can hold their first grandchild in their arms.
His father wanted to get out of the hospital so he could fix the flooring in the basement.
Imagine it. All the wonders of the world, yours for the taking for such a brief time…and this is what you want to use your final days of (relative) health to do!
So typical of someone who lost their curiosity early in life. Who seemed to have stopped learning on their last day of school. Who took a job and got married and bought a house and just put one foot in front of the other until now here he was, staring death in the face. And he had one last chance to do something meaningful, something beautiful, make some mark on the world and he was worried about flooring. In a basement.
How could he be supportive? How could he guide his father through his final days? Past his fear of death to acceptance. Was he just worried about the floor because it was what he would have done if he weren’t dying? It was just the next step on his boring path. Was it all about denial?
How could he get his father to open up in these last days and finally have the conversations fathers and sons are supposed to have? Was it selfish to bring up the things he wanted to take his father to task for? The things other family members said he should forgive and forget, because his father was a different person now?
But maybe he was too close to see the situation for what it was.
Yes, my friend and I want to see the whole world. Do all the things, go to all the places, meet everyone. We want to understand everything and experience countless adventures. But maybe what we’re failing to understand is another way of being.
What if his responsibility was not to make his father’s last days count? There is no need to book a flight to show him the wonders of the world or talk him into going to art galleries or even down to the beach to watch the sun rise. Those are the things we want, the things that take our breath away and make the world feel so gorgeous and fragile and beautiful that it breaks our heart.
No, isn’t it our responsibility to accept someone as they are? To understand them? Yes, he wants to share the beauty of the world with his father, but his father doesn’t care. He’s seen sunsets before and does not give a shit.
And that’s okay.
He has spent his life trying to get his father to understand him. To entice him, cajole him, force him to look at him and truly see him. And it hasn’t worked. And it’s never going to work. This is not the last chance to try again. It’s the last chance to try something different.
He and I are very fortunate. We are blessed with parents who can’t for the life of them understand why we do what we do (or even what we do). But they are fiercely proud of us and love us, despite this.
We need to learn to accept that gift. Really accept it, both the love and the pride and the bemused confusion.
This is his last chance to give his father what he’s wanted his whole life — to be seen and understood.
The clock is ticking and it’s telling us to stop seeing the world through our eyes. Stop comparing the choices our parents made to the choices we’ve made. Stop viewing them as our parents and just see them as people.
Did taking that job and getting married and buying that house and putting one foot in front of the other day feel inevitable at the time? What were the milestones in there that mattered the most to him? Who was he at seven and seventeen and forty-seven? Who does he think he would become if he had another decade to live? What moments is he heartbroken to know he will not live to see? Why does that floor seem so important to him?
Some people have these words inside them, waiting to be invited out. And some don’t. Maybe his father won’t share the answers to these questions. Maybe he doesn’t want to. Maybe he doesn’t know how. Sometimes you just have to be there and let people be themselves.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m perpetually unsatisfied. What drives people like my friend and I to constantly strive for more? What makes our souls so restless? Imagine being satisfied with the town you were born in and the people you grew up with. Imagine being cozy and fulfilled within the boundaries he and I were so eager to shake off.
Perhaps, rather than trying to open his father’s eyes to the beauty we see in other places, his father can teach him to be satisfied with what’s right here and has been right here in front of us this whole time.
Or maybe he won’t. I don’t buy into this bullshit that the dying have wisdom to share with us. They’re the same people who weren’t aware that they were dying, once. Aren’t we all dying? But there’s one last selfish motive for understanding and accepting.
He can ask his father why he did the things he did. He can bring up all the things he wants to talk about. But there are no end to the questions we want to ask of a parent. The past shifts and changes as we age, as we learn new things about ourselves and the world and the people in it with us. No amount of asking his father things on his deathbed, even if his father answered them all to his satisfaction, will ever answer all the questions he’ll have one day.
If we’re too busy teaching the dying to see and celebrate the world, we miss out on the opportunity to see the person in front of us. The better we understand someone, the better we can one day answer our own questions. There’s no better closure than learning to accept someone with whom we’ve had a lifetime of strained relations.
If only it was easy to accept someone for who they are. Truly seeing someone is so hard, I don’t know if I’ve ever done it. And now I have a deadline to learn how.