When my dynamic, athletic, life-of-the-party father suffered from a sudden stroke, we knew that his vibrant years were cruelly cut short. My mind continued to flip through all the stored memories of the loving, wise man that raised me and was my fervent and fabulous support as I faced life’s inevitable challenges. I refused to see him as he appeared in his new day-to-day limited reality. To allow his last lap around the track to be remembered as him limping to the finish line, and then to be honored in the normal “post life ceremony” felt oddly wrong to me.
So instead, I gathered family and friends from around the country and threw him a party in his honor – A Life Celebration. I ignored the doctor’s orders to limit his salt and served all his favorite foods and drinks, from caviar to dry martinis (shaken not stirred). One by one, each person regaled us with short stories about their favorite memories of Bill.
For me, this was a time to let him hear first hand, face-to-face, what people would later share after he could no longer hear their voices. It gave me a sliver of peace, when he did finally leave us, that he knew how everyone felt about him and how he had touched each and every one of their lives.
After the “Celebration” I wrote this:
Life is a journey with uncertain destinations. Some of us walk, there are those who meander, others race down each path. But, none of us should meet the end by crashing into a wall, or by slowly collapsing into a hollow silence. Before walking through the last door, we, and our loved ones, deserve to be given the opportunity to reflect on who we really have been during our lives.
If we are lucky enough to live a long life, the end is often not a pretty sight. Aged skin, fragile bones, and failing organs usually don’t look or smell very good. And if we have suffered from strokes or Alzheimer’s, we have little to say. The proudest are humbled. The most independent are often at the mercy of strangers as caregivers. At the end, this humiliating, painful, unattractive package we carry is a lonely, courageous challenge, faced bravely one day at a time, for what must feel like an eternity.
None of us should be remembered as this depleted shell that we will leave behind. One’s peak time in life is the true reflection of who the person was/is. To stand before a fruit tree in the dead of winter and to see it for only its cold, bitter state, and not to remember it in full bloom, laden with fruit that enriched your life – even if just by a little – is to dishonor it (him or her) and yourself.
In a clearer view, reflecting back on our lives boils down to a simple question: Is the world a better place because of the part we played? Sometimes our part is known to all, and sometimes mountains are moved by one kind act that might only be known to the recipient.
You might want to take a moment in time and stop. See your aging loved ones who whom he/she/they have been and, therefore, truly are. If possible, find the words to say that will flow so easily when the person is no longer with you, and have the courage to say them to his or her face, either in private, or in the midst of celebration in their honor.