Wrapping Up Work

Yesterday afternoon I spent several hours with my friend Tom, who is dying from Parkinson’s disease. I had not seen him for a few days, and when I came into the room his appearance startled me. His body seemed to have shrunk to doll-size—he hasn’t eaten significantly in days—and his face was a mask, like a paper cutout. He didn’t communicate, though he seemed to make contact with us from eyes set deep in his head.

We entered the mystery of dying, into which the living can only peer from the outside. We held his hand, sang to him, and talked to him. We watched him and wondered what went on in his mind. But he was laboring at breathing, to the exclusion of everything else.

It takes a lot of work to die. The hospice social worker said to me that it seemed like the counterpart of labor pains, hard, long travail leading to a new kind of life.

I remember my mother, two days before she passed away, coming out to join the family at lunch. From her face you could see it cost her every ounce of strength. Ordinarily so gentle, she looked stern and forbidding from the sheer force of concentration. Walking from her bedroom with agonizing slowness, she joined us. Her loved ones were there; a new grandchild had come to visit. She still owed a debt to the living. She always paid her debts, whatever it cost her.

My father died of Alzheimer’s four months later, which meant that we had little real communication near the end. He had long since passed out of the realm of conscious contact. Earlier, though, I remember how he worked, as he sensed his mind disappearing.

He had a brilliant intellect, shooting like electricity from one interest to the next. All his adult life he devoured theology of a high intellectual order, but somewhere in mid-Alzheimer’s he lost the ability to think that way. He could no longer follow an argument. For a man like my father it was a great loss, but not so great as I had expected. For a long period of time, a year at least, he became enamored of a series of very simple devotional books. They would not have interested him earlier, but now he poured everything he had into reading and re-reading them. He went through entire books underlining every word.

His work went on, perhaps more than ever, as he felt his mental tools slipping away. He loved God. At that he kept working for as long as he could.

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