The last days are always the most difficult.
Not the last days of summer, when fall moves in slowly with balmy days that just hint at the harsher weather to come. Those are actually among my favorite each year.
I still wake in the morning to light of approaching dawn rather than winter’s darkness. I don’t need a coat, though I may throw on a shawl that my daughter purchased for me in Qatar while she was deployed. And, as the earth’s relationship to the sun begins to shift, changing the angle at which the light touches our environment, there’s a new richness in the colors.
I like all of that, which is why I usually spend more time painting in the fall than at any other time of the year. I gather together a tool chest which I’ve converted to hold my paint and brushes, a bucket of water to clean my brushes since I paint with acrylics, and some kind of surface to work on – maybe oriental paper, maybe a canvas panel, maybe a wooden panel covered with oriental paper – and head off in my pickup to some scene I’ve been watching all year in preparation for the perfect day.
When I arrive, I pull my easel out of the truck where I keep it, put on some music – mixed tapes that a friend made for me nearly a decade ago – and take a deep breath while I gaze around me. I don’t know why I need to breathe in the world I see before I can paint it, but that’s my modus operandi. Since it works, I don’t question it. Finally, I put together my palette and start with bold strokes.
When starting something new, there are two approaches – be bold or be cautious. In life, I tend to be cautious, feeling out a situation before I begin to show my colors. However, in art, I’ve found boldness suits me best. I lay out wide strokes of color and then begin to work with those strokes to shape the work into something that reflects my feel for the place. The whole process fills me with joy. I am – in those minutes – united with my creator and it is good.
But not all endings have silver linings like that. My brother and I were talking last night about Dad’s long good-bye. The first hints of what was to come came when he was 79. He needed quadruple bypass surgery, which my brothers and I were told went well. Unfortunately, a nurse read his chart wrong and got him up to walk just hours after he’d come out of surgery. He had a massive heart attack.
The doctors worked for 40 minutes, but were able to revive and stabilize him. He was in the ICU for weeks and then the coronary care unit for an even longer period of time. We were given the worst possible prognosis – possible brain damage, no possibility of a full recovery.
However, two months after surgery, he left the hospital and went back to his small apartment. He continued to work, when he wasn’t hospitalized for one thing or another. Of course, his job wasn’t terribly demanding. Dad was a barber and spent as much time reading magazines in the barber chair as he spent cutting hair. Bit by bit, age and declining health took its toll.
When he had his stroke, I was in favor of care and comfort rather than extreme measures. But my brothers recalled the way he recovered following heart surgery and weren’t as wiling to give up as I was. The next six months were incredibly difficult as we watched Dad fight everything which might have aided his recovery, and watched his health decline as a result. Eventually, my brothers agreed with me. Care and comfort.
One morning I woke and knew I needed to go to my Dad. I just knew. I called my supervisor and said I wouldn’t be at work that day. That morning, I made what was to be my last drive to see my dad while he was living. When I arrived, the nursing staff was putting him back in bed, having decided he was not strong enough to be in a wheelchair.
I don’t know that he knew me, but he knew I would pray with him. He would grab my wrist and say, “Our Father, our Father,” and I would pray the rosary loud enough for him to hear. I would pause, get something to drink, and he would grab me again. “Our Father, our Father.”
That’s how I spent my last day with my dad. Then, in late afternoon, he grabbed me with his one good arm, pulled my cheek next to his and said,” Love you, Ma.” At that moment, he was holding my mother who had died more than 30 years earlier. I said what he needed to hear. “Love you, too.”
When my brother came, he wanted to keep vigil alone. He and dad were close, so I honored that request. Dad never spoke another word, though. A morning later, I woke early again. Before I had even ground the beans for my morning coffee, the call came. Dad had died.
Life is full of so many good-byes. Some, like the seasons and rites of passage, are anticipated and welcomed. Others, like death or the loss of a job, come unexpectedly and we simply have to navigate them by taking one day at at time. At those times, the best approach is to remember, first, that we are created in the image of God and cope with as much dignity as is humanly possible for us at that moment; and second, that we are the beloved of God.
Yesterday, I stopped by the library to print off a few things, and shared with the librarian the news about the change in life I am currently navigating. Our conversation reminded me of that love which God reveals through his people. She printed off for me one of her favorite Bible verses.
“For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11) Yes, I knew as I walked out the door, I will have a future and a hope. God is good.