I’ve always struggled with exactly what truly, intentional presence in the moment looks like. Sure, professor Keating can shout “Carpe Diem” from the desktop in Dead Poet’s Society, and since then thousands of pop philosophy sound bytes can tell us to “seize the day.” In fact, a cereal company even applied to trademark the term, but that’s a different matter altogether.
This week I was meditating on quite the opposite: my utter absence in moments divided by Facebook, Email and work deadlines, and in that moment I relived one of the richest memories that I shared with my dad on his final day. This post may sound grim, but I promise you some glimmer of gold for your patience in reading it.
Through nearly a year and a half of his sickness, my father insisted upon an active life. He was, after all, the guy that proclaimed, “ain’t no fat boy gonna tell me I can’t climb this mountain.” In the face of cancer, his approach was similar.
His last 2 months, however, were mostly spent in a recliner, weak with malnourishment and overtaken by pain. He was fighting a hero’s battle, but the wounds of war were apparent in his frailty. His activities became shorter, his conversations became softer and his body became smaller. He was becoming unrecognizable in the mold of the man that we all knew. Finally, on Thanksgiving day 2011 we walked the vestige of my warrior dad into the hospital.
By the following Sunday afternoon, his body, mind and spirit were war torn and battle weary. In his restlessness, he fought with every ounce of might to stand at the side of the bed as often as he could. Finally, at around 3:00, with my brother and I wrapped each arm as he wrangled his feet to the floor, and at about the time that he reached the top of his stance his body went limp and the alarms sounded. He had “coded,” and the army of nurses and doctors flooded the room. In shock, the family scattered away from the bedside as the professionals did their work, and with one still small voice a nurse admonished us all to draw close and to talk to him, “the hearing is the last thing to go, so come and talk to him. Tell him that you love him.” Of course, as a sceptic, my first thought was it is impossible to say that with any verifiable certainty, how could one even possibly test that? But this was no time to doubt, so I drew in.
With my whole family in the room, we gathered around his bedside and took turns speaking into his lifeless body. Finally, I reached down and kissed his cheek and told him, “You are an honorable man. I love you.” What happened next could not have been orchestrated by a professional with any greater precision. His eyes popped open, sudden and alert. He said to me in a strong and commanding voice that I had not heard in months, “well, I love you too son.” Suddenly, the distractions of the technicians and the alarms were gone, and the focus was entirely on the voice that I had longed to hear. Without the haze of pain medication or pain for that matter, his lucid conversation flowed with supernatural ease through the room to each child, wife, in laws and grandchildren. For thirty minutes that will forever be frozen in time, his mantle was restored, and with all of his energy he was fully and completely present. Everyone in the room was present and fully attentive to this moment–fully engaged and not thinking about anything else, not checking emails or Facebook–present in wonder and gratitude for this gift that we were all given.
After we all had time to speak our blessing and make a few jokes, the doctor walked in, and holding his hand my dad asked, “well, doc, am I going to make it?” as if to remind himself one last time, “against all odds, I’m going over this precipice victorious.”
We’ve all heard these stories of dramatic and incredible end-of-life moments. They are extraordinary moments in time that are counted like days and carry eternal weight. Moments like these are unlike all others. They are special and sacred not to be trivialized on a box of cereal. True moments of carpe diem are like flakes of gold in the otherwise mountains of trailings. If gold tipped every shovel that I plunged into the earth, then it would not be special. So, my prayer is not that we have these moments at every turn, but instead that we have them as often as we can see them as precious and golden. Live richly and seek out the extraordinary, and remember ain’t no fat boy gonna tell you that you can’t climb that mountain.