These vultures lined the pathway from my dad’s house in Florida to the spit of land, poking out into the canal, where I had the best chance of making a cell phone call without the connection being dropped. I smiled darkly, but with amusement, each time I ran the vulture gauntlet.
I was visiting my dad for a week in Feb. 2007, just after he called, crying, to let us know he had cancer. He hadn’t had surgery yet, or chemo, and he was feeling perfectly fine, if a little shell-shocked, so we hiked or took walks for a few hours together every day, as was his routine, and we ate out, and we drove in the new Mini to Sebring to visit his cousins and take walks there, and of course we talked.
I clearly remember him asking me, as we strolled around the streets and paths of the Church of the Brethren retirement community that he lived in, whether I had any questions I wanted to ask him. Anything at all. We were near the little orange orchard. And I clearly remember my response. If you know me at all, you know that I can’t remember a darned thing, so my remembering any of this was a clue to myself that it mattered.
And my response was to look at him, smile, and say, No, not really … Is there anything you want to tell me?
We had already talked about his diagnosis, to the extent that he wanted to, and I guess I could have probed more here, but I think we both knew the score, even then, and there didn’t seem any point. Stage 4 is stage 4.
Some years before, he had already made a Will and had end-of-life stuff sorted out. I had spent the last decade or more drilling him on his family’s genealogy and on my early childhood, which I don’t remember. I still have the cocktail napkins on which I took notes as we had a drink together or ate out together and I asked him, once again, about his mother, his early work experience, his honeymoon with my mom, his father’s brothers, what it was like to drive a hearse.
I really didn’t have anything more to ask. I felt I knew what I needed to know, not so much about his family, his life, my life, or his death … but about how to live. Because I had watched him live, even with vultures lining the bridge — as they always d0 and always will.
I read this at a family memorial service we held this summer for him and his sister, my aunt, who predeceased him by almost a month — she died the weekend after she visited him, when he was dying:
“It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living.
I want to know what you ache for
and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.
It doesn’t interest me how old you are.
I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool
for love, for your dream
for the adventure of being alive.
It doesn’t interest me if the story you are telling me is true.
I want to know if you can disappoint another
to be true to yourself.
If you can bear the accusation of betrayal
and not betray your own soul.
If you can be faithless
and therefore trustworthy.
I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine
and still stand at the edge of the lake
and shout to the silver of the full moon, “Yes!”
It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom
you have studied. I want to know what sustains you
from the inside when all else falls away.
I want to know if you can be alone with yourself
and if you truly like the company you keep
in the empty moments.”
(from The Invitation by Oriah)
What interested me then, and now, is what he ached for and dreamed of, what sustained him, how he kept faith and didn’t betray his soul, what made him cry “Yes!” to the moon, that he truly liked his own company. But I already knew all that. I still know all that.