Life is a work in progress. I’m not sure of the source for that quote, but it rings true with me. Some argue that people don’t change, but as our bodies develop, plateau, and then decline towards death, our spirits need not. We do have an all-too-human aversion to change, preferring the comfort of our old ways, even if these ways do us no good. Like the worn security blanket that Linus carried everywhere in the Peanuts cartoon, we take refuge in tattered habits. Yet we are constantly writing and editing the story of our lives until the day we die.
It is never too late to overrule our resistance to change, examine and adjust our behavior, and reap the resulting benefits. My father is an example of this, and so am I.
My father died at age 90 after a few months in hospice. While I’d worshipped him as a little girl, once I became an adult we never had a comfortable relationship. He was brilliant, highly controlling, very critical, and saw other people through his own needs, not as individuals with needs differing from his. I found time spent with him akin to taking oral exams for a doctoral dissertation with the understanding I’d never pass muster--it was extremely painful. The tension when we were in the same room was thick.
When he entered hospice at age 90, I knew it was my last chance to connect with him. I wanted a positive memory of him to carry in my heart, but feared his final words to me would be harsh and I’d have to live with their shadow. It was a chance I felt I had to take. Once I took the step toward him, I found that since he was now bedridden, he seemed contained somehow and so I felt him less likely to reach out and hurt me.
Also, knowing his time on earth was limited, I was willing to put my own needs on hold and to let my emotional responses to him go unexpressed. I didn’t expect either my father or myself to become different people, only to try and find some common ground together. This made relating with him seem…possible. Since in the past, relating to him had been impossible--this was a big step forward, and I took it.
Basically what I did was simply show up to sit with him as he lay dying and, sitting there, I realized that he, too, was making an effort to connect with me. I assume that he didn’t want to die on an angry discordant note and wanted to make peace with me. He was making a choice, as he could have been harsh or shooed me away. Instead we sat there, and eventually we held hands.
He talked some about his life and present situation. After a few weeks of developing this trust and seeing we could be together without striking at one another, I noticed how his eyes lit up on seeing me enter and sit by his bed. This gave me the courage to ask him one day if he was proud of me…I wanted his blessing. He said yes, quietly not forcefully, and while it wasn’t as enthusiastic a response as I’d have liked, I could tell there was no qualification or reservation in his voice. He went on to tell me that I’d made a good life for myself and that, most important, I’d done it on my own. I could hear respect in his voice and it hit home. I felt that I no longer had to prove myself, and a weight lifted from me.
Perhaps as his body became more vulnerable, his desire to control loosened. Maybe his shield of invulnerability simply weakened, and he realized that he was only human and needed to love and be loved.
About three months into his hospice care, I went to visit him on a dreary December day with rain pouring outside. I took a seat by his side and held his hand. I cried some, as it was clear his end was near. My father gently lifted my hand to his lips and tenderly kissed it. Then he looked at me, and there was a light shining through his eyes and emanating from him; I knew God was in the room, and I trembled.
“You look beautiful,” my father said to me as I sat there with swollen red eyes.
My father’s face was so peaceful and full of naked and undisguised love, and then I got it: my father had always loved me fully but had been unable to show it, choosing to hide it deep within himself. Now, with both his and my own efforts, he dropped all the veils and gave me the most precious gift in the world, one I feel unbelievably blessed to have received. That brief moment of his full love was so powerful that it seemed to make up for years of going without it.
Three days later, my father died in his sleep at home, his heart open. Together, we worked until the very end to reshape and edit our father-daughter story, and we managed to give it a happy ending.