June, 1997 + Greenfield Center, New York
My Dad died October 4, 1997 after a six month bout with lung and liver cancer. The Gill family was given the four dreaded words that spelled the end: malignant, aggressive, inoperable, and terminal. He was 79 and had smoked a pipe for sixty years. dad had been feeling listless and fatigued for months. That was not Raymond Gill, Senior, at all. That he lived so long is a testament to his nearly indestructible life force. The pipe notwithstanding, I was nonetheless stunned. He faced his mortality in a natural and peaceful way.
I pondered, could this unquenchable spirit, this Mount Fuji of men die, and be no more? Could his unassailable, powerful presence pass from the earth as if he were like other men?
I wrestled with the inevitable and steeled myself, knowing full well what his death meant for me: grief and loss. The Gill family would be leaderless, like an Army company without its feared yet beloved commander. I was moving onto the front line of mortality, as in the Oriental formula: grandfather dies, father dies, son dies. As politics is local, so death is personal.
The family came together for a reunion and goodbye visit three months before the estimated time of death. For me, our time together was not pervaded with tragedy or even sadness. Dad would have none of that. Not him. There was no avoidance or denial or false anything. I blanch at what I'm about to write, yet it is true. The atmosphere for me was that of a family visit to the VA hospital shortly after my injury. There were no tears, maudlin displays, or pity. During this visit, we had an unspoken agreement of togetherness and mutual resolve.
Our family accompanied Dad to radiation treatment, ate together, laughed at dumb jokes as always, watched Dad's favorite old war movies, and swapped stories heard many times before. A sense of emptiness hung over us all, and we felt it. This week together was somewhere between a wake and a reunion, depending on who you were and what your relationship with Dad was. Mom was very quiet and extra solicitous of Dad. This would invariably elicit, "I can do that; what do you think I am, a baby?" Rugged and independent to the last curtain.
The evening before we travelers were heading home. I asked everyone to give me some time alone with him. They all went outside. Dad was seated peacefully on the couch in the living room of the home on the land of my childhood. A heavy white curtain was directly behind him, like a frame of an old photograph. Dad sat composedly, quiet and upright. No slouching for this man.
I sat directly in front on him, very close. I knew this was it: my final goodbye to this huge presence in my life, this man who had withheld so much and given so much. He had been the standard of manhood I had emulated or rebelled against every day of my life. We were like unfriendly neighbors sharing a contested border. Strife could break out at any time over any issue or imagined slight. We were never neutral.
We were straight with each other at long last; it took my injury to bring down many of the walls between us. The first embrace I remember getting from him occurred after the wheelchair had claimed me. I was 33 years old. I guess I was no longer a threat, in that Freudian oedipal father/son economy. I would say, "I love you" to him; Dad had never reciprocated. Never. He was always uncomfortable with that, witness the inevitable silence that always followed, like an echo that refused to sound. I longed to get past that reluctance.
I eventually won his respect and admiration when I became an attorney. I felt his pride in me law school graduation day. I had traveled a great distance from my piss-drinking Cortland days, and we both knew it.
The room was shadowy and very still. The only sounds came from the 'tick tick' of a small pendulum clock on the kitchen wall and the muted laughter of the family at play outside. I labored to breathe, like I do at times of anticipated emotion. I felt nervous and claustrophobic, like a young man going into combat for the first time. I had never opened up to a dying person, much less this one. I felt like the first time parachutist about to jump. I knew this was a momentous occasion. I was afraid to begin. Time passed. I had at least to say something.
"Dad, I want to say a few things." I felt relieved, even though the words hung in the air like Banquo's ghost. There was no question now; I knew this was our final scene together. Dad stayed true to himself, getting right to the point. "Go ahead, say what you want." We were all alone in the world, no past or future intruded, this was now, this was here. I started to weep.
'This will never do', I thought. I struggled to stop, my body shaking with the effort. I managed to put words to the sadness, giving this man his due, and this instant its fulfillment. Word welled up from that silent abyss where love is. I told him Sarah was OK, that she had married a man like me, like him. I told Dad not to worry needlessly about her. I knew that was very important to him.
I thanked him for what he had given me, especially in living with my injury: "I could never have made it through this injury and gone to law school without the strength I got from you." He remained as absolute as Hamlet's gravedigger: "Well", he said, "You're doing alright so far." So far. Almost twenty years. From Dad, that was high praise, indeed.
"Dad, I hope you live to see a hundred." As we mutually drew the curtain over his days, he gave me greatest gift he had left to give. He showed me how to die: "I want to live," he said, "but if not, it's OK." He was ready and at peace. Centered. Time, his time was no more. He was about to enter the Unknown as if it were a nap after dinner.
Have I adequately conveyed how profound and poignant this was? This tough, yet loving tiger of a man had become gentle, wise, and immediate. I unabashedly loved him without constraint, love clean and manly. "I love you, Dad." Our journey together, rocky road that it was, was complete.
He died at home in his bed surrounded by loved ones. I was at peace, though I missed him and felt empty. I attended his funeral, as we all did. Dad's death came fully home to me when I first saw him in his grand ornate casket. he looked so small, so pale and so icy, lying there, out of place in that huge velvet and walnut box. As if you could confine Washington on Rushmore in a cardboard carton. My accumulated feelings from years of turmoil and rebellion to peace and resolution burst in upon me. I let go. A convulsive flood of bitter tears poured, cleansing and consoling.
One night Dad came vividly to me in a dream as I lay deep in sleep in Texas. He looked into my tearful eyes, all tenderness and understanding. He held my head lovingly in his hands. He gently leaned forward and kissed my forehead. Like a touch from the Buddha. My Dad was a powerful man.