I remember my last visit before Dad died in 1969. Mom called me at graduate school to tell me that he was quite ill (he’d suffered a stroke four years earlier) and had been admitted to the hospital again. She made it clear that if I came, it would be my last visit.
Though incredibly weak, Dad, as usual, was glad to see me. Our conversation was minimal. Quiet time predominated. He seemed surprised at my visit, since I had visited him at home not long before. Yet, he acted not so surprised. It was as if he knew why I had come without saying as much. We talked some about the weather and, of course, about sports, especially baseball.
Our parting was on the surface indistinguishable from any other. Neither of us was able to find a voice for what we ached to tell one another. I’ll never really know if his saying good-bye to me touched him as deeply as my saying good-bye to him. I can still see the unspoken desperation in his eyes nearly thirty years later. I felt so small not knowing how to respond.
Dad died a short time after my visit, at the age of seventy-three. Though I still felt small for that weak good-bye, his death did not devastate me. He had lived a long life and been a modestly happy man. His final suffering, though prolonged, was not intense. He died quietly and painlessly. I was relieved his ordeal was over. Yes, I hurt, and I knew I would miss him. My tears came relatively easily, and they comforted me.
I had known and loved Dad for twenty-four years. I realized how fortunate I was to have had a father in my life and to have known him at all. Yet, perhaps the most difficult part of his dying was wanting to have known him better. He had lived the greater part of his life, nearly fifty years, before I was born. Much of his life’s story was obscure to me. I knew some of the major events. But there were, and still are, large gaps. I knew, and still know, little of how he experienced those events or how they made him who he was. He had never talked much either about external happenings in his life or what was happening inside his skin. That pattern continued through his dying days and my last moments with him.
When Dad died, my young head filled with wonder. What did his seventy-three years mean to him? What was it like for him to realize that his life was coming to a close? Did he sense that he was saying good-bye to everything he ever knew or cared about? What did our twenty-four years together mean to him? What did they mean to me? Does everyone leave as much unsaid as we had? What would dying be like for me one day?
I carried the wonder with me as I returned to my life’s routine. I finished my graduate studies and began teaching philosophy. A few years later, I introduced a course on death and dying, primarily for students who would enter the helping professions. My wonder, no doubt, partially motivated my turning in that direction. I knew those I would teach would want wisdom about being with the dying and their families. I knew I didn’t have it, but I knew we could search together. It is the sort of thing philosophers are supposed to do.
Thomas Attig is the author of The Heart of Grief: Death and the Search for Lasting Love and How We Grieve: Relearning the World, both with Oxford. He has written numerous articles and reviews on grief and loss, care of the dying, suicide intervention, death education, expert witnessing in wrongful death cases, the ethics of interactions with the dying, and the nature of applied philosophy. For details on his writings, and on his speaking services, contact him at http://home.earthlink.net/~tattigca/index.html .