Today, my 93 year old grandpa is having heart surgery. All of us, including him, are maintaining a positive outlook, one that is hopeful and confident, leaning on the medical staff’s expertise that this is, in fact, the right move. And though we are all keeping our eyes on a positive future, we can’t deny the undercurrent of another, possible outcome. When he is wheeled into the operating room, will he come back out alive? When they call him in for surgery, is that our final goodbye?
I see the refusal to openly acknowledge these questions. As if our words will control the outcome. As if, in naming this possibility, it might become more true. When my sister died, there was a similar response to death hovering. No one spoke about it. Pushing down, denying, something that felt too difficult to wrap our minds and hearts around. We do it for survival, for protection, looking away from a door that is too difficult to face. We tell ourselves that we must be strong for the others and ourselves, which often means pushing our emotions, and aspects of the present situation, to the side. And yet, when there isn’t acknowledgement of that hovering door, we are missing an opportunity.
As I sit here, wondering what the outcome will be of today, I notice two things. I am reminded that the outcome of all of our lives will be death. As one of my teachers John Travis says, “You came here to die.” It’s the only certain reality we have once we’re born, and yet it is paired with the paradoxical human desire to survive and thrive. I believe that death, no matter what, is a shock, a surprise. And yet, there can be moments in our lives where we’re given more notice, a possibility to acknowledge death as it’s happening, instead of it blowing through suddenly, like an unwelcome guest. In the dominant, American culture, we have not been taught well how to welcome these moments, how to use them as learning and transformation, a moment of intimacy with the true nature of this human experience, rather than avoidance. An invitation to let the heart break, to fully witness a life that will never be witnessed again.
What I also am aware of, are the words left unsaid. That so often, it’s in death, that we realize we had so many things we wanted to share with our beloved. Why do we wait until it’s too late? And we know this, as we experience people we love die, and yet, it can seem uncomfortable to allow ourselves to exchange this level of intimacy when we are all still living. It seems like a gift, an offering, when death decides to kindly wave at us, remind us that it’s near, and take advantage of this warning. But yes, it means addressing the possibility that soon, our beloved will take their last breath.
In efforts to say yes to living with an open heart, and no to a regretful one, I wrote this to my grandpa:
I feel hopeful and confident that this surgery goes smoothly. Gosh, you’ve been through battle, this is nothing. And yet, it is arousing this need to communicate to you just how special you are to me. Perhaps, moments like these, ignite reflection and call on us to express the things we don’t normally get to express, yet feel so deeply. You’ve been such a jewel in my life, Grandpa. Teaching me how to look at the world, how to show up for people I love, letting the possibilities of life be innumerable, yet balanced with responsibility. You’ve taken care of all of us, such devotion. You constantly offer yourself as support, and for me, you have always shown how much you care. Gosh, Grandpa, thank you for caring so much about me and my path. Offering guidance and curiosity, even when we come from different perspectives. I feel so grateful that you are surrounded by your children right now. I see how they all, in their own ways, have been impacted by your love, taken on some of your characteristics. I see how dad shows up in the same way as you, consistently and with devotion. I see how his caring, communicative, loving heart is like yours. I even see his stubbornness, like yours. All coming from a place of trying to keep us all safe and stable and on the right path. I just want to say, as you’re heading into something a bit unknown, that you are such a strong, brave, courageous man, to whom I look up to greatly. I think back on what I know of your life, and see how you chose, and still choose, to live in such affirmation of life. You played in life, created, explored, stayed interested. What perseverance. Well, I guess I’ll stop going on and on about how great you are. Thank you for being in my life, for loving me, for showing up for me. I’m telling you, you’re coming out of this surgery 30 years younger, I just know it. Pray and know you’re held, Grandpa. I’ve been blessing you up and will continue to do so all of today (and forever).
Speak words of love and gratitude to those who are meaningful to you. Never let them go unsaid, for they are the song we are all waiting to here.