It was 3:30 a.m. and I woke with a start to the cell phone. My 93-year-old Dad was on the line. “Hey, Jen, I’m having chest pain and shortness of breath. I threw up a while ago. Should I do something?” “Yes, Dad. Let’s get the nurse [in the retirement home] to come and check you.”
I got over there just in time to wave him a thumb’s up while he sat in the ambulance. We met again in the ER. After a few tests, a young doctor came in to tell us that it was not his heart. He had a stone blocking his gall bladder. This was relatively good news. No heart attack. In fact, they said his heart was fine and he could undergo surgery to take out the gall bladder.
Dad was a high school English teacher for 39 years and was always comforted by poetry and Shakespeare. In recent years after Mom died, he swerved gently into significant memory issues. Still good natured and relatively happy, he had to give up driving and let me handle bills and other details.
When we took a two-day drive together last Thanksgiving, I recalled that he could remember whole soliloquies and poems by heart. While on the road I say to myself, “Ah ha!” and to him, “We have at least 500 miles to go. Let’s start at the beginning of Hamlet and go scene by scene.” “OK,” he said. “Let’s see.”
And off we went. Though he often quoted Hamlet at the dinner table when I was growing up, it was kind of ho hum, there he goes again. Now in the car with him, I get it. He knows this play inside and out and has explored its gifts with students for many years. Once he looked right at me and said, “If you understand Hamlet and the Bible, you are pretty set for life. It’s all there.”
Now, sitting in the ER waiting for things to happen, we have some open time again. I mention Hamlet and ask him to recite something. He goes right into “To be or not to be. That is the question.” He recited the whole thing and mentioned that it was in the third act. Then he says, “What Hamlet is really saying is, to live or not to live,” and I am struck by the relevance of the life/death polarity.
“The old question of whether to live or die which is the basic question of philosophy. Why do I go on living? From a logic point of view, there may seem to be no point to anything.”
In the ’70's Dad was invited to offer a daily commentary program on the local radio station, WBAL. Five days a week he had a 3-minute segment called Insight with AJ Downs. I flipped open the file of one page, typed segments and there was Hamlet.
“Spend every day as if it were your last. Live every moment as if the next moment will be the last—and then, you need not worry about death, for you will know, then, that it is not how, or when, or even why, you die that matters but how you live, in every precious instant that this unpredictable world gives you. That is why Hamlet is a triumphant person, at the last, and why we, to the extent of our strength, can be triumphant too, if we can live knowing that the readiness is all.”
I can say without a doubt that my father lives this truth as he faces his mortality. My mother died gracefully almost three years ago. He was her caretaker for seven years as she spiraled into the end stages of dementia after a long and happy marriage. He accepts the closeness of death and is most content in the moment. My brothers are attentive from a distance but are not here for the day to day.
Relationships are complex. I have questions to explore about my family relationships, but I am grateful for the time to hear Dad’s musings, watch his movements as he winds down a full life. I am comforted by sitting with him talking about the day or a poem. How precious and how fleeting. And I see that he is at peace with himself, though sometimes puzzled at what is happening today, or will they bring him breakfast.
I remember the din of the Emergency Department fading into the background. One nurse popped in while we talked, and she was drawn in too. She shared her memory of reading Antony and Cleopatra. My father lit up at her bright face as if he stood before students once again. The readiness is all.
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