My father died of kidney cancer. Near as anyone can tell, it was the two massive tumors in his brain which finally killed him. My father was able to die with dignity. He was walking around the house 45 minutes prior to dying. My mother had to force him to lie down so that he would not die while walking.
In the morning prior to the day of his death, he reached went to his dresser to put his wallet, keys, and pocket knife into his pants. He did this every morning of his life. While he was there, he picked up a thermometer and looked at it oddly. He then put it in his pocket as if this was supposed to be part of the things he did. The morning of his death, he forgot to go to the dresser to take care of these things. In retrospect my mother said this should have been the sign for her that this was going to be the day he died. The structure that we have in life that takes us to our end is a mercy and only death highlights these things. When my father died, I realized that before every meal he went to the bathroom and washed his hands. When I called out "Time to eat!" to the household, I realized the exact moment that he would arrive only when he didn't for the first time. I would never have known this about my father without death. These structural things we take for granted are exposed to us and in death we learn more about our loved one.
There is a mercy in our make up. We only experience pain at the level of the first news for a short while. Could you imagine how debilitating life would be if our pain level for news like this lasted at the same level every day. While painful, it is a beautiful miracle that life does go on with joy in it. The day my father died, I told my children. My daughter who was 8 at the time cried painfully. Minutes later she'd be laughing and running around. She'd then stop and cry again as she realized the news. She came up to me and said, "Daddy, it's awful. I keep forgetting Grandpa died and then remembering again. Why do I keep forgetting?" I smiled and told her it was alright. I could see the beauty in this moment that death would only affect her in the amount she could handle.
In society around us, death serves as a reminder of the shortness of our lives. It forces reflection and challenges us to determine what we're going to do with all of our moments. Will we waste them or will we muster an attitude and fortitude which makes us spend our time wisely and towards something more beautiful. During the death of another, we can find people who feed the mourning families and bringing them comfort. Death creates the space to help others in a way that cannot be done at any other moment. Put differently, death creates the moment in which people can demonstrate mercy and find it within themselves. This is one of the many odd beauties that exist in death.
In death, we find the stories that codify the memory of the one who lived. We sit around and we talk about our fondest memories. We sit in gatherings and we share. We share the best of times and after that, we cannot help but to share the worst. We honor the loved one who left us by talking about them and carrying them forward. The person remains among the living in the memory and stories we tell. That we have a memory for this is beautiful. We are not one who lets go of those who came before. We do not return to the herd and simply look out for our own selves. Stories are perhaps the greatest mercy and beauty in death.
I expected the death of a parent to be a hideous thing. I expected to resent God and the reality of my own impending time. I was wrong about that. Instead, I found that while there was no pain worse than the one I experienced as my first parent died, I also found beauty. I found that mercy and compassion do exist in death and that there really are worse things. I hope that everyone who experiences death can experience the beauty of it and find the value in each next second of their own life until their own death.