The Last Time
A son visits his father on his death bed and muses about life and what's most important.
As I enter his hospital room, all the intentions I have of staying calm and projecting a peaceful aura seem to dissipate. I immediately panic. “Dad, how are you doing? Are they treating you well? Is this the right place for you? I hate hospitals, nobody should begin and end their life in such miserable places. Did they give you breakfast? Are you still able to eat?”
“I’m fine, son. They just gave me some canned fruit.”
“That’s it?! Good Lord, is this their idea of making sure you don’t stay in this world another day?” I protest in a loud voice hoping that someone from the staff out in the hallway might hear me.
“How are doing, son? Are you hanging in there? I know this must be difficult for you.”
“I’m fine, Dad.” I take a deep breath before saying what I came prepared to tell him. “Dad, you had a good life and are now ending it at a ripe, old age. I am sad to see you go, but also happy that you’re ready to go.” I think about what I just said and quickly make a course-correction. “Wait. What I mean is that you seem satisfied, Dad.”
“Yes, this old body ain’t what it used to be. It’s time to turn it in and clock out.” He stares at the ceiling avoiding eye contact so he can focus on his breath which is quite rapid with a slight wheeze.
“Sorry Dad for being such a pain in the ass.”
“What do you mean?” he says glancing quickly at me and then returning his gaze to the ceiling.
“I know I wasn’t the easiest of the bunch, but I had some business to take care of and had to see things through.”
“What business was that?” he asks with a slight crease on his brow.
“I had to learn about who I am and needless to say that took some time. Along the way I took some wrong turns and got lost a few times. I apologize for any pain I might have caused you.”
“Just a few sleepless nights,” he says bluntly, “but that’s beside the point. We all have our own path to take. What did you learn about yourself and why do you think it took so long?”
This was one of those rare moments where Dad was actually open to having a conversation about such matters. In the past, we almost never spoke about such things except when Mom was defending her religious beliefs.
“I learned many things, but mostly I learned what I’m not. We are not these imperfect bodies or these neurotic minds. We are none of the memories, emotions or stories we tell ourselves. None of this is our fault because we aren’t doing anything.” I sense I might be getting in too deep for my audience, nevertheless I continue. “It took me a long time to realize these things because I had to dig through a lot of manure to find the pony, but sure enough, the pony was there.”
“What was there? What did you find?” he asks with what appears to be genuine curiosity.
“The truth. It’s almost impossible to find, but it’s there hidden under all the crap—all the self-help books, new age gobbledygook, self-appointed sages, gurus in silk robes, religious dogma and spiritual paths to nowhere. The truth actually exists and once you find it the seeking just stops along with all the silly ideas you had about it.”
As usual, Dad seemed to be searching for an appropriate response to his son’s unusual interests. Dad was a working scientist his entire life and anything that slightly resembled philosophy or spirituality was quickly dismissed as ‘magical thinking.’ I think the closest Dad ever got to spirituality was watching an interview Bill Moyers did once with Joseph Campbell. But Campbell wasn’t really a spiritual type, more of an academic, really.
“It seems that you were on a quest, then. Life gave you a pile of crap and you had the wherewithal to know that you best start digging. Good for you, son. I’m proud of you.”
“Yeah, even all the bad stuff now seems like a gift, something that had to be experienced in order to show me something I wouldn’t have been able to see otherwise,” I answer.
“Life teaches us many things, kiddo.”
“Well, I would have to agree with you on that one.” I pause before asking him the next question. “Dad, what have you learned? What knowledge are you leaving this world with?”
“Looking back, I see how so much of my life was just chasing the wind. I’m embarrassed to admit that I should’ve spent more time with you kids. I’m ashamed because every old fart on his death bed says the exact same thing. All those bright, shiny objects that we love to chase and acquire? They are just a big con—here one day, gone the next. They mean nothing. It’s all fools gold, the whole lot!“
He begins to cough uncontrollably and his breathing becomes faster. I gently put my hand on his arm until he’s able to calm down again and regain composure. I make an effort to continue the conversation on a more positive note.
“Well, I suppose all that chasing made for some good diversion, right?”
“That’s all it was good for, diverting us from what really matters,” he says lifting his head up a little to emphasize his point. “We spend our whole lives working our asses off and for what? Granite kitchen counter tops and trips to Las Vegas?” A bit of spittle sprays from his mouth. “C’mon, what a waste!”
“Like you always said, it’s a consumer society. Maybe someday society will reframe its idea of what ‘success’ means.”
This was my usual intent to spin society’s predicament. Dad is able to slow his breathing down and appears more calm now.
“It will never happen,” he says. “Fear and desire will never have it. They are what take ideas like yours, wrap it in cellophane, and sell it for $9.99 next to the airport magazine stand. Fear and desire are what make the world go around. The world isn’t interested in anything it can’t monetize.”
“I miss the old days when people led simpler lives,” I reply, just realizing how naive it sounded.
“They led simpler lives only because they had to,” Dad responds. “Humans have always pushed the limits to obtain what they perceive as bigger and better, but it gets us nowhere.” He looks off to the side as if in deep thought. “Why we don’t realize this until we’re about to die is a mystery to me.”
“Such is the power of maya,” I say under my breath before he goes off on another rant.
“Maya, the power that hides and projects. Maya hides the truth from us and then projects objects and experiences that we feel compelled to chase in order to complete us. Like you said, it’s a big con.”
“Oh, so that’s how it works. Well, your maya sure did a trick on me!”
“Maya fools everyone.” There’s a pause while I search for something else to talk about. “What do you believe is next for you, Dad?”
“Who’s to say. Anything but this.”
“Anything but what?”
“This world. I’m ready to leave it for good. There is no happiness to be found here.”
“Only the temporary kind.” I add. “Life keeps us chasing by making the things that make us happy, dependent on changing factors. The ‘big con’ isn’t that objects cannot satisfy us, but that the happiness we thought objects contained isn’t in them, it’s in us.”
Dad raises his eyebrows with a feigned look of surprise and begins to cough again.
“Where else would it be?” I continue uninhibited, “Objects are innate, they have no power over us. Again, it’s maya, which really is just another name for ignorance. Maya is the great illusionist that makes everything appear different from what it actually is. Once you know the magician’s trick all you can do is laugh because the deception is so good.” Damping my enthusiasm a bit I decide to sheepishly add, “But maybe it’s not so funny when you’re 86 and only recently realize you’ve been duped!”
“How are the children?” Dad asks abruptly changing the subject. It no longer disappoints me when he does this. I learned a long time ago that most people aren’t comfortable talking about such things. I think it kind of freaks them out.
“They’re doing well. Matthew is at a soccer game and Sonya is out running errands with Ashley.”
“Oh, that’s good,” he says turning to the ball game on TV.
I let the conversation pause again so Dad can regain some of his strength. He closes his eyes trying to slow his breathing.
“You know, in the end all we have are these memories,” he says with his eyes still closed.
“Not really, Dad. Our memories are just more thoughts, stories we tell ourselves. We aren’t our thoughts. We aren’t even these persons. In the end, the only thing we can claim to be ours is that which enables us to have such experiences and memories in the first place.”
He opens his eyes and looks at me sternly. “I’m a dying man, can’t you tell me something a bit more encouraging?” he says half-jokingly. “Maybe something about a light and some angels? Can you at least try to fake it?”
I decide to play along. “Ok, you will fall asleep soon and die a peaceful death without any pain. At the moment of your death you will rise out of your body as a younger version of yourself where you will see a very long tunnel with a light at the end. At the end of this tunnel is Buttons, the little white poodle you had when you were a still a child, waiting to guide you to a special place where you will live happily ever after surrounded by family, friends and as much chocolate cake as you want.”
“Okay, okay,” he says coughing with a slight smirk. “You don’t have to coddle me.”
I felt good about making Dad smile, even if only slightly. There was a connection now between us that I hadn’t felt in years.
He turns to me and asks, “What else have you learned from those old guys living in caves? How do they see death?”
“‘Who is it that dies?’” I say trying my best impersonation of an old Hindu. “They see death as just another passing experience. They would say that if you’re the body-mind then you won’t feel anything at death because you will already be dead, end of story. If you’re not the body-mind but instead, consciousness…In other words, if you identify with consciousness, then you have nothing to worry about because what dies is not you. What dies is just inert matter.”
Looking a bit confused Dad asks, “Consciousness doesn’t die?”
“No, because if that were the case it would have to be born, and something cannot come out of nothing. The person you believe you are dies, but consciousness always remains the same. It's just like the relationship between a wave and the ocean. The wave eventually loses its energy and form, but the essence of the wave lives on as water.”
Dad suddenly cringes in pain reaching toward his right leg.
“Son, can you call the nurse?”
I step out of his hospital room to look for help. When I return, the very sight of Dad in such a weakened state sends a rush of emotion through me. The words seem to come right out of my mouth without any effort.
“Dad, my heart is heavy knowing that you have little time left with us, but my mind and everything I’ve learned tells me you’re going to be just fine. The boy in me wants to cry but the grownup is at total peace with it all. Sometimes it’s hard to know who to believe.”
Dad is still reaching toward his leg, but finds a moment of calm to focus on what he wants to say.
“There’s nothing wrong with taking a mature perspective and by the looks of it, you have worked through any fear or sorrow you might’ve had about this life. And by the way, I think your wave analogy is a good one. Maybe I’ll think about that in between naps.” He takes a deep breath. “I love you, son.”
“I love you too, Dad.”