When you’re young, you’re made of titanium. You toss back six shots of tequila and bounce out of bed the next morning. You run ten miles on a whim without strategic retribution from your hamstrings. You believe everyone around you is similarly immortal. But as you get older, that sunny surety of triumph begins to fray. You notice your parents aging. Maybe a friend has died – before their time, a tragedy – and it begins to dawn on you that none of us are long for this world.
As you watch your father die – before his time, a tragedy – you learn that maybe it isn’t such a bad thing. That maybe everyone has their own time and space to occupy and all you can do is make it worthwhile.
1. When in doubt, lie on the ground. You know what’s always there for you? The ground. You know what always catches things you drop? The ground. Go outside and lie in the grass beside the hospital parking lot, because it will soothe you in ways you didn’t expect. It will catch your overflowing emotions and your overflowing tears. The earth beneath your feet – or your back – is the ultimate support system that no one can take away from you.
2. People want to help. Doctors want to help, nurses want to help, friends want to help, family wants to help. All that stops them is the lack of time or not knowing what to do. Or possibly your furrowed, scowling brow. But feel free to furrow and scowl as needed – they’ll get over it.
3. Social media can be a life-line. When you’re trapped in a hospital room, sometimes all you have is that tiny computer phone in your pocket. Putting my last days with my father on Twitter is one of the best things I’ve ever done. It provided a record without relying on my memory – a memory that loses details like a sieve loses water – and it gave friends and family a way to check in and reach out.
4. Morphine is awesome. I didn’t get to try any – hospitals frown on that sort of thing – but the second they stopped poking and prodding at my dad and hooked him up to a giant bag of happy, everything got better. His personality, buried under pain for months, started to surface. His brain wasn’t there, but morphine allowed his heart to make a final appearance. Nancy Reagan was wrong – drugs are great.
5. There’s no shame. No shame in buying fresh underwear from the nearest jcpenney because you have nothing clean. No shame in eating McDonald’s for breakfast every day. No shame in clipping a nurse with a paper airplane you throw over your father’s hospital bed. Do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself.
6. Be selfish. It’s something of a dirty word, especially at hospital bedsides, traditionally recognized as an excellent spot for sleepless martyrdom. But you can’t help anyone else unless you’ve already given yourself what you need. If you need to bail and go to New York for a month while managing things from afar, do that. If you need to sit with your father for ten minutes an hour and then spend the rest of the time roaming the halls, do that. Do jumping jacks in the hallway. Tweet constantly. Do anything that fills you up – it will keep you from hitting empty before your father does.
7. Crack yourself open like a lobster. There’s unlimited love out there and you get as much of it as you want. You just need to reach for it – by sharing your experience, appreciating the time with your family, letting your friends support you. Pain will shatter what you knew, but the wreckage can nurture something better. Opening yourself up when you’re destroyed allows an unexpected tsunami of love and support to pour into your soul and fill the cracks.
8. Trust the process. If your father is dying, allow that to be the right thing. Allow it to be what is best for him and best for your family, even if it doesn’t feel that way. Allow the path he’s on to be the right path.
9. You have more love and strength than you ever imagined. Waiting for a loved one to die will show you exactly what you’re made of. Sure, you may lose it and occasionally feel like what you’re made of is heaping tablespoons of crazy, but eventually you’ll drop down far enough to find that untapped well. You’ll surprise yourself.
10. Lose your fear. You don’t need to cling to fear as if it’s a blanket that will keep you safe. It won’t. When the worst happens and you survive, you realize that the worst isn’t as bad as you imagined. Yes, it’s terrible. Yes, it’s heartbreaking. But there are so many beautiful, tangled bursts of light contained in those dark moments that you learn how deeply life will bolster you up, support you and cherish you, even as it tears things away. Fear will ebb away as life rips. Let it go. You don’t need it.