ON THE ANNIVERSARY OF MY FATHER’S DEATH
There was a full moon the night before my father died. Like the moon a few nights ago that shone through my window, bright as a prayer. Eleven years have passed since my father’s death and, strange as it may sound, I look forward to this anniversary now. It’s a reverential day to me, a day to revisit the soft moment when his breath fell silent, when his face became smooth and untroubled, when he had crossed over to the realm beyond this world that he never feared. Any place can be a church and in that moment, the room where he died was, to me, a sacred place.
For ten years, Alzheimer’s had stolen much of him, but had left much of what was essential untouched — his gentleness, his humor. Even when he could no longer talk, his eyes would laugh. Mystified by a disease none of us understood, I tried to be a quiet presence in my father’s life; I longed to leave behind the disagreements and distances that had wounded both of us. One of the truths about Alzheimer’s is that, as memories fade in the person stricken with the disease, a lifetime of memories rises up in loved ones who wrestle with regrets and what-ifs. I learned many powerful lessons in the decade of my father’s illness, one of which was to live fully inside every moment as it happens. I will always be haunted by regrets for my past, but I was baptized by small moments with my father as Alzheimer’s narrowed the boundaries of his world: His hand reaching for mine as we walked around a park near my parents’ house. His eyes studying the sky at their hilltop home, brightening when he saw a hawk balancing on a wind current. His stories about the river in his small town when he was a boy — stories that stayed with him deep into the disease.
So much of our lives was played out on the world’s stage — disagreements, rebellions, disapproving comments. Those who judge might want to look at their own families and ask themselves how they would fare if the world was looking in. But for the last decade of my father’s life, the world was kept out. The journey of Alzheimer’s, with its wrenching sorrows and exquisite moments of surreal beauty, with its broken language and sweet silences, with its losses and its surprises, was a journey we took outside of the world’s harsh glare.
And on June 5, when the fog had burned off and a weak sun came through the window, my father died with only a few of us there to witness his departure. We’re lucky, I think, because it was a gentle death, a quiet changing of the guard. And to see how soft death’s hand can be alters your life forever. I feel my father’s spirit more acutely in this month when jasmine vines are blooming and their perfume lingers in the air; I feel him close when the moon floods my room with silver and wakes me from dreams. I feel him in the part of my soul that’s a little less afraid of death because I watched him leave. Ronald Reagan was an elusive man, always just out of reach, yet in his last moments he moved closer to the people who, in their sometimes clumsy ways, loved him more than they could express.