Although it is no secret that the sand in the hourglass of our lives has been draining since the day we were born, we avoid talking about death.
I get it; I have been there. Fortunately, I have been given the distinct privilege to be around family members and friends while they were struggling through their last days. These experiences gave me a perspective of life and death I treasure. They also lessened my fear of death.
While the movie version of a violent death may be a realistic depiction of death at the hands of someone else, filmmakers cannot capture the important experience of reverence, reflection and comprehension that death of someone close to you can provide.
The curriculum of life
Author Gary Zhukov theorizes that our surroundings are part of the Earth School Curriculum we have been assigned in this life. The older I get, the more I am awakened to this truth. The following are the lessons these experiences of death have taught me about life.
1) Our time on earth is precious. Life is a limited experience and time is our most precious commodity. It is so easy to waste, so choose carefully how to spend it. This also means you should choose wisely who to hang around with. No toxic people, Stay near those who love and support you.
2) We are on an earth school. Regardless of our status, we are all learning (or not) from our experiences. We spend so much time judging these experiences that we neglect to reflect on the lesson someone or something has exposed us to. The lessons are real, but we have to make ourselves open to learn them.
3) There is no such thing as a failure. We have little control over what doors open or close. But we control our behavior. We make more progress when we surge ahead and look for the openings rather than sit and stare at the doors that closed
4) We learn the most through the interaction of relationships. Although we are the only ones living inside our skin, life is greater as the sum of the many and not as the sum of its individual parts. Everyone who comes into our lives can help us evolve. A life of guarded emotional inaccessibility is a mistake. We must open ourselves up to relationship with others no matter our circumstances.
5) We must become the person we want others to be. The only people worth emulating are the ones who teach us by their good example. Don’t scold and judge others on how to be, show them.
My father’s death
The most important lesson about death I learned during my father’s last days on earth.
My dad (Papí) and I engaged in a very difficult relationship. We never liked or respected each other. He liked nothing I ever did or accomplished and never missed an opportunity to criticize and put me down.
I grew to resent him and saw his accomplishments as nothing more than an insatiable thirst for power, money and status.
We went for years without talking to each other. After many years of no contact, I was well prepared to spend the rest of my life with no further contact with him.
Then one day my two brothers and I got a call from his girlfriend who stated that, although he did not want us to know, Papí was dying of cancer. After a difficult discussion among us, we decided to inject ourselves into the situation so we could help him. This turned out to be one of my most life-giving decisions.
When I next saw my father, it was clear the cancer that was ravaging his lungs had torn down the walls that had imprisoned his true feeling from the three of us. For the first time in my life, my father told me his story. I learned about what he had endured at the hands of a very demanding father. He shared the pain of losing everything under Fidel Castro and the fear of not measuring up to the challenges of starting life anew in the United States. Most importantly, Papí shared his genuine affection and admiration for what I had done with my life.
The most important moment happened when my father uttered the last words I would ever hear him speak.
Doctors transferred my father to a hospice, and he had been lying in bed for several days barely able to open his eyes. My father attained a Doctor of Pharmacy in Cuba, but the United States had stripped it from him when the government refused to recognize his education. We knew receiving that degree meant a lot to him and had asked the hospice staff to refer to him by his professional title. They gladly complied.
While in hospice, it was difficult to decipher whether Papí was conscious, so we shared our time together in the silence. Even without words, his presence was tangible. One day, a nurse came in and, after softly awakening him, pleaded with him, ,
“Excuse me Dr. Vidal, I am here to move you.”
To our astonishment, my father replied in his unmistakable voice,
“You don’t have to call me doctor, that doesn’t really matter anymore.”
There could not have been something more meaningful or inspiring than Papí’s last words. For a man who had pursued status, wealth and power all of his life, I realized he had finally learned the most valuable lesson of his life; it is useless to measure our value by material things of this world, they do not really matter.
My joy and respect for him overwhelmed me.
My father’s death experience helped me see him under a different light. Like finishing a great book, I could judge and appreciate his life on its entirety. I felt pride and admiration for the way he had conducted his life and the effort he made to overcome so many difficult challenges. His sacrifices (along with my mom’s) will go down in my life as the greatest act of love I will ever experience, for they gave me a chance at a life of hope and opportunity. I still don’t like him much, for most of our moments together were pretty unpleasant, nor do I find justification for many of his actions towards me, but with my new perspective, I am grateful for how valuable he had been in my life.
Last but not least, I understood that Papí like me, had done the best he knew how. This was a critical finding because forgiveness cannot happen until we can separate the person from their deeds. I can judge his deeds and still believe he was a good man who was being challenged to evolve. Forgiving my father allowed me to view my life and forgive myself for past mistakes in the same way.
I felt fortunate to have been there with him as he closed the last chapter of his story and I was proud of him. He made me a better man as he took his last gasp. Experience gave me a fuller understanding about life and our purpose for being here. I urge you to embrace these experiences when they come your way. The experience of death is life giving.
Going through a difficult life transition?
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