The Hogwarts ghosts have a tradition I think worth borrowing. They celebrate their Deathday, a party marking the date they quit this mortal coil. If a child's birthday leans forward--first steps, a bike, a license, the vote--a Deathday looks back at a life well lived and, for the lucky, well ended. It's a lovely spring morning as I write this, just as it was six years ago on the day I said goodbye to my father.
Most of us have a pretty good idea about how we want to die: at home, at peace, quickly, with family, without pain. And at a ripe old age. But progress begets paradox: we've gotten so good at the last goal, it swallowed the others, so we live longer but die slower. Two out of three people die in hospitals or nursing homes, often alone, the process prolonged by a conspiracy of hope, fear, bureaucracy, inertia. When researchers not long ago interviewed family members of the recently deceased, half of them said their loved one did not get the support he or she needed at the end. There's a specter to haunt us, a death worth fearing, altogether different from the death we can embrace.
As my generation journeys deeper into middle age, we talk about this quietly, live through our parents' passing and learn how little we know about the journey's end. Death will never be pretty--its sights and smells too close and crude. And it will never come under our control: it gallops where we tiptoe, rips up our routines, burns our very breath with its heat and sting. And yet while sorrow is certain, fear is not. "She had a very good death," a friend says of her mother, and I have an idea of what she means and don't hear it as a shrug of denial or contradiction.
I asked a doctor friend what makes the difference, once the battle is out of her hands. "Fear," she said, "and regret. Take those away, and what's left is peace." Two weeks before my father died, he sat in the sun watching one of his granddaughters play soccer. Three days before, as his strength visibly failed, three generations were able to come and be with him. The hospice angels made him comfortable. Neighbors brought pies; the pastor brought prayers. On Sunday night his granddaughters read him a bedtime story. My brother and husband took turns keeping watch. He did not wake up Monday morning and died the following afternoon, with his wife of 49 years and his children beside him. He was 82.
How is it that the one event we know with absolute certainty will occur is still one we improvise? Do we lower our voices, dress in black, save a lock of hair as the Victorians did and wove into jewelry? Do you let young children see a corpse--the very word suddenly cold and empty because his flesh and blood no longer matter, his meaning filling the space once his presence is gone? "Is that Grandpa?" our 4-year-old wondered. "No, honey," my husband told her. "He's not here anymore. That's just his body." She worked at this, how the arms that held her and the lap she sat in were no longer him. "You know how when we go to Florida, we leave our winter coats at home because we won't need them there? Well, he just left this behind because he doesn't need it anymore." And this appeared to make perfect sense to her, and she went to play, full of love and certainty, and we all took a walk in the watery light of late afternoon.
There are those--soldiers and nurses, poets and priests--for whom death is a sure companion. But most of us treat it as a notorious celebrity we watch from afar, fascinated but removed, until we have no choice, preferring myth to truth. Do we raise the odds of dying well if we pitch our tents within sight of the cemetery, feel the cold earth and vow to make a bucket list, make resolutions, make amends? Ten million people watch Professor Randy Pausch's Last Lecture on YouTube; see the shining, dying man; and quietly promise themselves to shift out of neutral, stop being stupid about the stupid things. I celebrate Daddy's Deathday for who he was and what he made us, a day when gratitude came to life.