The dance of death: It’s a universal waltz
The dance of death.It’s a universal waltz we all get a turn at, whether watched through the dimming eyes and growing infirmities of our parents, felt from the unexpected shock when it takes a sibling or a friend, or contemplated in wonder and fear in its inexorable approach on our own path.I took a turn at it when my 80-year-old dad passed at 3 p.m. on Friday, July 13, a date he might well have been aware of and perhaps even might have picked, though I somehow doubt it.I can’t seem to think about much else these days, which is why you’re reading about it now. And I suspect that, uncomfortable as it is, this is not the first time, and it sure won’t be the last that the idea rears up and startles you with its immediacy and its power. Unless, of course, I’m the only one around here who started wrestling with weird thoughts about death around my 50th birthday, another thing I strongly doubt.The penumbra surrounding death is an interesting thing, not entirely dark, but shot through with beams of light and laughter at the oddest moments.For example, one morning outside the West Glenwood Mall (shopping for things you never thought you’d need being one of the unfortunate sidelights of the death experience), a friend rode up on her motorcycle to give her condolences. But the first thing she said was, and here I quote loosely, “I thought at first it was you, until I read the age and realized either they’d made a serious mistake or it was your dad.”Which brought up a couple of intriguing thoughts for me, the first of which was, “Well, one of these days it will be me!” The next one had more to do with normal gratitude for a friend’s compassion, and we giggled together at her misapprehension.One of the lesser anticipated aspects of the situation has been how little time one has to actually grieve. The details of death are myriad, and there’s a sense that you’d better get everything done NOW before you get the chance to crumble into a helpless heap of tears and sobs. That chance, of course, only materializes occasionally as you follow the track laid down by trillions of deaths before the one you’re dealing with.Oh, the collapses do come on, usually at odd moments when you’re thinking about something entirely mundane and you suddenly realize that your dad (in my case) will never need that particular bit of upkeep again, or when you stare at something he valued and handled often and think much the same thought.One outfit to whom I will be eternally grateful is the Grand Valley Combined Honor Guard, which conducted the rites and ceremonies at the Veterans Memorial Cemetery of Western Colorado in Grand Junction, where Dad now rests.Dad, you see, was a veteran of World War II, in the Pacific Theater, and a 20-year retiree of the U.S. Army Reserves. He always considered his military days as the best times of his life, and his service afforded him the right to a burial plot courtesy of Uncle Sam.When Dad fell ill and went into surgery, I felt a great urgency to finish all the paperwork needed to complete his qualifications for that burial plot, although I remained confident and expectant that he would pull out of this crisis and be his cranky old self for years yet.Those details out of the way, and after Dad passed quietly one afternoon, I merely contacted the administration of the cemetery, made my request, and it took on a life of its own that was remarkably complete and perfect.This squad of upper-middle-age vets, all volunteers, took my dad into their hearts and their hands and gave him the sendoff he’d always hoped for.An honor guard escorted him to the chapel, lead by a Scottish immigrant playing the bagpipes for all he was worth. A chaplain kept the religion to a minimum and stressed instead Dad’s service to his country and his brothers and sisters in arms. A bugler, standing at the end of a stone wall a little ways off from the chapel, played the clearest, most piercing and haunting version of “Taps” that I’ve ever heard.The piper chose a lively tune to send Dad “across the Loch, in the Scottish tradition,” as I gasped sobbingly for breath and wondered more than once if I’d manage to get through this without being hospitalized myself.Coping with death is a tough moment for those still standing, but it can have a logic and a beauty that perhaps can be truly understood only long after the fact. I await that clarity with eagerness.
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