I read this essay to the congregation as the homily to a service on death and dying given in February 2009 by Reverend Roberta Finkelstein, the Unitarian Universalist minister at South Church in Portsmouth NH. Thanks to Reverend Roberta for giving me the gentle push I needed to write this.
Around three o’clock on the afternoon of July 21, Rachel, my wife, called me at work. “Danny, he’s taken a turn for the worse.” My father-in-law was in the final hours of his life. Dad had been in declining health, and we suspected that the end was coming, sooner rather than later. It had been clear to me for weeks that I would be the person to stand by my mother-in-law as she kept her final vigil with Dad. When I arrived at his room in the nursing home, Rachel said her final farewell to Dad. She had been with Mom at his side for the better part of the last two days. Emotionally and physically spent, she left for home and some much needed rest. The hospice chaplain arrived, and I stepped out of the room so that she and Mom could speak privately. I felt awkward. How will this work for Mom? I thought. She and Dad are Jewish and the chaplain, well, yes, she’s compassionate, she’s ecumenical, but she’s … not Jewish. After the chaplain left, Mom was bemused by the fact that a non-Jew had recited Hebrew prayers for Dad. Around seven-thirty, attendants came to bathe Dad and get him ready for bed. Mom and I stepped out; when the attendants were done, I continued the vigil alone. Mom needed to walk around, to get out of Dad’s room for a bit. I pulled a chair up to the head of the bed. The hospice chaplain had told us that the sense of hearing is still quite active until the very end, so I talked to Dad. The attendants had left on the bathroom light. It was fluorescent, bright, yet cold, and it felt like sand in my eyes. As I stepped into the bathroom to shut off the light, I explained out loud what I was doing. “Dad, that light has got to go. It’s way too harsh and it’s upsetting the mood in here. There’s a beautiful sunset and it’s sending a wonderful pink light in your window. All we need is the sunset and the lamp next to your bed. That will make if feel a lot better in here.” I sat down next to him again and kept talking. “Dad, you really told a lot of great stories. Do you remember any of them? Oh there’s one that always made me chuckle, it was during the war, when you were a dentist at that Air Corps training base in Florida. You told me how you would hitch rides in B29s, those big silver bombers, when they went off on training flights, so you could earn your flight pay. Do you remember telling me about that? I’ll always remember that image of you playing poker with the crew in the tail section of the plane, as you flew from Florida to Kansas and back.” My cell phone rang; it was my brother in law, Danny, checking in. I described the situation. “Yes, he’s breathing on his own, it’s labored, you can hear him rattling. His skin is pale, and his face is slack, no tension to it at all… wait a minute, hang on… Danny, I think he’s stopped breathing. I think he’s gone. Let me call you back.” I reached out and touched Dad’s neck, looking for a pulse. I felt nothing, then a brief flutter, then nothing again. At that moment, Dad’s nurse walked in. She too felt his neck for a pulse, then pressed her stethoscope to his chest and listened. “I’m sorry, he’s gone,” she said. “Wow. That was quiet. He just slipped away.” Let me share something I witnessed, perhaps fifteen years ago. It was a brilliant late autumn morning, golden, frost-tinged, and still. I had stopped at a traffic light on my drive to work. The trees were mostly bare, the leaves now piled on the ground, slowly changing from vibrant red and yellow to crumbling brown. By chance, I glanced out my car window just as a leaf dropped from a branch. The sun and nearby buildings were aligned so that this single leaf caught the sunlight and stood out against the shadowed background like a soloist performing in the spotlight. The leaf drifted stem-first, drawing a lazy, graceful, circle as it descended to join its fallen kin. Its solo was over. And that’s how Dad took his leave. The moment of his passing brought no flash of lightning, no crash of thunder, no majestic chord from a celestial organ. It was perfectly ordinary, marked only by an extraordinary sense of peace and calm. If there was an image that fit the moment, it was that of a falling leaf, making one last lazy circle; if there was a sound, it was the quiet rustle of that leaf joining its fallen kin.