The Wind Behind Us

When we last spoke, we talked about what happens when we look death in the face and how our body and our mind moves into a state in which death and survival are all the same. In this last part about mortality, I want to discuss the approach to the end of days and what our expectations may be about it. I suppose that some of you who start to read this might think it is too personal, that what I write here is for my family alone. You'd be wrong. You can identify with anything here. Come on in!
 
In 2009 our family came together to make a galling decision: How to provided for the long-term care of our Father. He was 96 years old, still strong but consumed with dementia. He was like a muscular, recalcitrant 165 pound, 2-year-old. Our mother was overwhelmed with the effort of caring for him. One of the discussions among his ten living children was to wonder out loud if there were not a "better way for him to go." I know that many of us will imagine an ideal way to pass out of this world.  An example follows:
 
One of the most poignant things that I have seen on the internet in a long time were comments made at the website of a video of Duane Eddy; he of the mellow, booming baritone guitar. A watcher made the comment about his father, who had recently died of cancer and was a fan of Duane Eddy's music: On the last day of his father's life he had played Duane Eddy songs for him all that day long.
 
I remember a time when I thought about what it could be like for my father's passing. It was the winter of 1984-1985. I was bone tired and sat down to rest at the base of a tree. The tree both supported my back and gave me some protection from the wind as I faced southward, turned 180 degrees from the north wind. I was cutting firewood with my father. I was 35 years old with an athlete's strength and endurance, my father was 71 years old and was easily kicking my butt. He was working on the ground on which he had lived and flourished for his entire life.
 
It was a time of both disaster and opportunity: There were miles of bad road behind the life of the american farm. High farm produce prices in the 1970's had pushed up the price and demand for land. Many farmers had used their income (inflated by the higher prices) to go deeper into debt by buying more land and new machinery. Now prices were dropping, in part because of political forces worldwide and there was a perfect storm of dwindling cash flow and mounting debt that was crushing many a farmer's dream under the hard boot heel of economic downturn. Many farmers were going broke and selling out; it was a period of great attrition for the american family farm.
 
At the same time, my own siblings (I am eldest of 11) were striking out on their own, marrying and starting their own families. For those who were prudent and cautious and not overly leveraged, the depression in the farm economy at large was presenting opportunities for land at a reasonable price: As many landowners were now selling out, supply reduced demand and drove down land prices. I was proud of my family and had chosen to temporarily relocate from my home of 13 years in Alaska to the family farm for the winter. 
 
The reduction of families on the land had made many trees available to cut for firewood and my father, whose great pleasure was good work, found cutting wood good work and so here we were sawing and loading wood in the winter wind.
 
We were on high ground, on the north side of a lake and I was looking south.  My gaze fell first on the location where eighty years previously, my grandfather had built his first homestead sod house. My father and his brothers were born in that home. As I looked further south, I could see the roof of another farm house. I had known the owner all my life.  His father had died under that roof when his heart gave out after working his land.
 
I imagined my father sitting there with his life winding down. I imagined him with his memories (and he loved to share them) of a life as a person of the prairies. He would have memories of house parties, home brewing sessions, hunting sorties and threshing crews and of the pleasure one feels when they come in from a day of working in hard country and relaxing by a coal stove with a hot meal. I imagined him remembering his childhood friend who had lived in the house that no longer stood, but would have been behind me and a half mile north.  He had told me that he found that friend by the side of the road in his crashed car and had stayed with him while he died.
 
I imagined his pride and his sadness. Sadness for those who had gone before and pride in this great sprawling family that he and my mother had raised, worked and nurtured who were now building their own lives and bringing home grandchildren. I thought to myself : "This would be a great way to go, and I hope that Dad goes this way."
 
Our father lived another 27 years:  he cut wood for another 20;  flew his airplane for another 22 years and lived on the land that he was born on for another 25.  As a result of the consensus of his children, he spent his last 2 years as a patient in a nursing home. On his admission it felt to many of us that we were incarcerating him. There were more tears shed on the day that he was "committed" than on the day that we put him into the ground that he and his friends had worked on.
 
The mind does strange things as it tries to rewire itself as parts of it dies off. Although our father often couldn't remember what year it was, if taken outside by the nurses, he could look into the sky and tell within a quarter hour what time it was. (A gift called the "farmer's watch") During the last two years of his life he started speaking Norwegian again, which he had learned as a child from our grandmother. But he could speak Norwegian to someone, recognize that he wasn't being understood and try Swedish or switch to English. 
 
Our father's passing was peaceful, but he did not die with his back to a tree contemplating the scope of his life, or listening to his favorite music. We were all grateful to have him for as long as we did. So it goes - things seldom work out in the way that you idealize.
 
We've come to the end of the inquiry into life's journey. I hope that for each of you that the journey is a long one. What remains to be said has been better said by others : 
 
"The first breath is the beginning of death." - Thomas Fuller
 
"Say not in grief he is no more - but live in thankfulness that he was" --Hebrew Proverb
 
And in the words of the Irish blessing: May the wind be always at your back.