It was the last day of our trip together. My father’s luggage and mine leaned on the curb waiting to taxi to the airport, red and green as Christmas. Heading home.
Five years ago, my father knew something was wrong with his wobbly legs, but he didn’t know that ALS had claimed them. He asked me to accompany him on a trip to Europe since my mother’s health was failing and my brother, on sabbatical leave with his family, had invited Dad to join them. Forty-five years earlier, we had all spent a sabbatical year in Goettingen, Germany, and so we returned to season some of that history and pass it on to the next generation. While we were on the continent, my father wanted to return to his favorite haunts in Switzerland and relish the beauty he had loved most in this world.
On the train between Lucerne and Munich, or somewhere in between, our relationship found a new equilibrium – no longer that of a father and daughter but of two pilgrims navigating life’s unpredictable road. He learned to lean on me, as once I had leaned on him. We learned to laugh at his tales of getting stuck on the floor of the train station after re-tying his shoe or getting stuck in the tub without the strength to rise. We learned to talk and risk saying what we meant and let the differences stand.
Only a few days after our return, he was told that was to be his last trip. But not his last journey. Ahead was the completely uncharted path of dying, and living while dying.
I decided to make a travel log of this final adventure, along with my dear friend, Stephanie, who was accompanying her mother on the gravelly road of ALS. We began this blog together, and I presented a note about it to my father as a Christmas gift, 2009. In it, I promised not to invade his privacy, detail medical conditions, or air family matters. I vowed not to try and interpret his experiences, but to reflect upon my own. I told him that while I knew the disease was thought to be dreadful and even cruel, I wanted to hold the possibility that light could yet be found in the days ahead. That I would be there for all of it, for the dreadful part, yes; but also for the ways it might change, shape, sharpen our living of these days; how it might endear us to this here and now. His eyes became wide, as though imagining for the first time the chapter ahead of him not a curse, but an adventurous conclusion to a rich life.
This Christmas, we came to the end of that road. I have tried to be faithful to the practice I set up for myself, as he was certainly faithful to the adventure, opening himself each day to whatever life presented. Even opening himself, at last, to the kindness of death. Through these reflections, I held ordinary moments up to the light and found that they became prismatic. They lodged themselves in me with a certain staying kind of grace.
Now it is time to let words stand still and hold the sounds of silence. Stephanie and I clinked glasses on Christmas Eve over a beautiful dinner, her daughters radiating their young loveliness around us. Her mother and my father no longer communing at this table of goodness.
But both of them alive in us, in a powerful, mangered way. Both of them still shaping our ever-widening capacity for joy, for life. Both of them, luggage shed, carried in our bones like a river of light. For, like all who are cherished in a living heart, theirs is
A Life, Still.