Sunday, December 14, 2014

A whimper, not a bang

My father-in-law died yesterday morning.  After more than a week in the intensive care unit of a local hospital, his systems began to shut down and his heart ceased its rhythmic beating at 98 years of age.

An irascible and difficult man, he lived by his own standards, not caring much for what others thought or said. His opinion was the only one that counted and he moved through life with the ease of a lava flow, alternately wreaking emotional havoc wherever he went as often as spreading joy.

Despite his cantankerous nature and his outward contempt for others, he could be a very charming individual, a man who bred within his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren a deep love for family and the arts.

It was his love of family that may have brought about his demise. Despite an ongoing battle with scoliosis and a bout with prostrate cancer 30 years ago, he was in excellent health up until a few years ago, when his health began to fade slowly. His demise was sudden and unexpected. He had caught the flu while visiting with family members on Thanksgiving Day. His fragile immune system was unable to recover and he began to experience a combination of respiratory, renal and cardiac failures. Because of claustrophobia, he was reluctant to permit the use of feeding tubes and breathing masks, medical devices that probably would have elongated his already long life span.

He was a man full of life - an accomplished pianist and painter -  and it seemed like nothing could ever diminish his zest for living and his larger-than-life personality. He demanded loyalty even if he did not return it. His children felt his brusque reproach at times when he was displeased with them and his grandchildren, similarly, received stern admonitions from him were they did not live up to his expectations. But as difficult as he proved to be, almost everyone loved him dearly.

Everyone that is, except me.

After my wife died nearly 20 years ago, my father-in-law talked directly to me less and less, despite the fact I had done nothing derogatory or unsavory to him save marry and love his daughter. He did dote on my son - his  grandson - as he grew up without a mother and the truth is that I had lost my own father just prior to my wife's passing. I could have used a strong shoulder for support during that time, but he rebuked me by turning away from me and ignoring me when I would offer him greetings. Nevertheless, I encouraged my son to spend time with his grandfather.

I endeavored to be better than him in approaching this awkward situation, but after more than a decade of the cold shoulder treatment, I decided to return ill favor with ill favor. I ceased saying hello or acknowledging him at family gatherings, because I saw no value in striving to take the high road when he insisted on taking the road less traveled.

So, it was in a strange place I found myself this week. There I was, inside his ICU room wearing medical gloves and donning a surgical mask that covered my nose and mouth. I spoke to him through the mask and he responded with a weak and frail voice. I told him I was sorry and that I hoped he would be getting better. For a moment there was no longer a contemptible reprobate in front of me, but a sickly old man, who was preparing to leave this world and enter the next.

I didn't feel joy at his dilemma, only pity. Somehow, the rancor between us was like a veil that was lifted. My antipathy towards him no longer existed and all that remained was regret. Yes, regret. There was regret that had he acted more favorably toward me, we might have shared the joy of life and been close friends and buddies for, lo, these past two decades.

And, yet, I knew it was too late, that time was running out, making this newborn truce between two stubborn forces just a temporary respite.

When his struggles ceased, it was peaceful. There was release and then genuine sorrow. In my lifetime I have lost a great-grandfather, two grandfathers, my own father and now my father-in-law. There are no father figures left in my life, a fact I contemplate as I prepare to become a grandfather myself for the very first time.

And so I mourn for what might have been. I wish our relationship had been closer before death forever separated us. I now join compassionately with my family members in missing and memorializing him.

It is essential, though, I keep inviolate in me the valuable lesson I have learned here: Always strive to open my heart and be of a kindhearted spirit or else risk squandering an opportunity to love completely and be loved in return.

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