The last four weeks of my father’s life began in the cancer ward of a Seattle, Washington, hospital.
As he lay on his deathbed, he sought prayers and salvation from every person of the cloth that would visit his room. He’d actually asked that his name be put on any available list. He was afraid and, I venture, he felt he had good reason. He’d ruled two marriages, of three children each, with anger and cruelty. He was raised by parents who prayed to a demanding and jealous god that he was about to face, and he was sorry. So, very sorry. For Everything, he said.
He wanted to know, despite all his sins, would he be going to Heaven. Would he, as the scriptures promised, be forgiven and saved from an eternity of torment. Of course, each godly representative came with their platitudes and blessings. He accepted multiple sacraments and still, when the sun went down and the night wore long, he lay worried that this redemption wasn’t going to be good enough to get him through.
Near the end, he also sought my forgiveness. I gave it without hesitation. Not actually because I’d yet forgiven him but because I wanted him to die loved, as I think every human should.
I’d like to think that he died with a peaceful heart but I’m not so sure. I still cry when I look at the last photo I have of him, in his sickbed. He was so thin, his eyes so wide and lost. I see the lonely little boy who grew up in the soot and cinders of south Chicago. The youngest of three, a first generation American born of Serbo-Croation refugees in the late 1930s. A young man who started working in the steel mills as a roll turner at 13, and having to prove himself time and again to parents who saw only the devil in him. Who grew up to become a proud, card-carrying, union electrician though he could barely read or write.
Who now lay in wait to go naked unto a death he was taught to fear. A tormented soul having wrestled the daemons of shame his entire life, yearning for a kind and eternal answer to his desire to finally be worthy of love.
Why does anyone have to feel they are dying alone or unloved? Wasn’t that what religion was created to prevent? To give peace of mind, peace of heart, for the ultimate road trip. Now, it seems just a tool for subjugation and thievery. A lever for the power hungry to pry away spirits from the living and leaving them to feel vulnerable and abandoned.
What if, yes, your lifetime was meant to be spent sowing the seeds of love and kindness but however not in anticipation of earning a ticket into a place of eternal glory? That souls were never actually meant to be reborn, or meet gods, or rejoin loved ones in that classic sense proffered in sermons and print.
What if, instead, the essence of your living actions, kind or cruel, followed in your wake and upon death colored your spiritual existence? That your actions here on this Earthly plane actually created the foundation of your experience in the hereafter by infusing the spiritual realm from which others sought refuge and sustenance in times of crisis or injury.
I like to live my life with this belief because I used to be afraid to die, simply because death seemed a lonely journey into unknown bounds. I have no idea what an eternity could be, but the thought of living it without love puts me beside myself in fear. I’ve decided that death is the opportunity to become love. And, to become love in death I must act with love in life.
What have I got to lose? If nothing else, at least I’ll feel better about leaving.