My uncle lies down because he must. It is a torment to him, worse than the pain in his shattered hip. At 88 he is, of course, more frail and bent than he appears in so many of my memories but, in more important ways, he is unchanged. “C’mon, Kel”, he says with the boyish charm that never left him, “let’s go”. But Kelly, his granddaughter and closest friend, reminds him, for the hundredth time, that the doctor needs him to lie still.
He is a father to me, a kind and honorable man who through the course of a hard life seemed never to run out of strength or humor. Even now, he astounds me. He is constantly moving his arms and legs, trying to escape the stabbing pain of the broken hip. Recoiling from an especially sharp thrust, he flinches and moves his hand to his forehead, accidentally whacking me in the process. He opens his eyes, instantly brushes aside his agony and gasps “I’m sorry, Jeff!”.
That was Tuesday; a miserable day spent in contradictions, imprisoning a man we wished to be free. I grasped his strong hand and held it still as the nurse pushed a needle here and there beneath his skin, hunting for the vein. He looked at me, asked me to let me go. “Please!”, he said, with a tone of disbelief that I would betray him so.
On Wednesday, the surgery behind him, his eyes are closed and he does not speak. His legs lie still but his hands express his troubled thoughts, grasping the sheets, his clothes, the bed rails, always searching, grasping, pulling… Tears rush down Kelly’s face. She meets every thrust of his restless hands with a tender word and soothing caress. She spends herself extravagantly from moment to moment and I wonder how she has anything left to spend. I feel numb. I have been here before, with my mother and then with my dad. Days of confused dreaming, reaching because that is what a soul trapped inside a body does; reaches for comfort, for work, for freedom.
And it occurs to me that this terrible process of dying is, in some ways, like birth. As the desperate cries of a woman in labor, feeling as though she is being torn asunder, so this labor is urgent and troubled and sometimes excruciating, this process by which a worn-out body prepares to deliver its soul into eternity, birthing itself unto death.
But against this and above this is a clue; that we already have lived through a series of journeys which felt like destinations but were not. We were content in the womb but needed to be born. We were content as children but were destined to grow up. We are (possibly) content as adults, but will inevitably be born into…something beyond. Each of these births is awkward and painful yet, even so, good in ways that we could not then understand.
Childbirth would be a terrible tragedy if the story ended at the mother’s last exhausted shriek, a moment before the new voice was heard, but that is our situation each day in hospitals and nursing homes; everywhere that death invades. We see the pain and separation but not the joy which so far overshadows the pain.
I long for my uncle’s presence; I have been leaning on him for as long as I can remember and I know that he will soon be leaving me. That his departure will be more painful than I dare contemplate is a fact. That his love for God and (infinitely more important) God’s love for him will translate that separation into a new life is also a fact, one that even now transforms my grief.