“Will you come bury me?” The voice on the phone was my elderly father, suddenly reaching out from Germany, some nine time zones away. It was 6 AM on a Sunday morning here in Seattle, where I was settled in for a long summer’s nap.
“Hang on a minute, let me see if I can find my shovel!” I answered, always trying to be the classy comedian. My father was approaching the age of 93 at the time, finding himself all alone after multiple divorces. He and I had serious differences both real and imagined that had torn us apart, brought us together, and more recently unblocked our cell phones. At 93, he was in great physical shape for his age. Every day, he was walking and climbing the hills around the Black Forest in Baden-Baden.
After years of defying insurance company actuary tables, my father had come to know a lot about burial. He had buried his own father at the age of 12, and then his mother a month later when she collapsed from a heart attack while feeding him lunch. As an orphan he was raised by the Hitler Youth and the Nazi Luftwaffe during World War II. Some nine years later, he brought his family, including me, to America to help America join the post-Sputnik space race. His third wife ultimately brought him back to Germany.
My father rarely speaks openly about anything other than his love for Germany and quantum physics. He had been private about everything, especially the approaching end of his life. For the first time, since we restored communications, he suddenly told me about his plans for an end. He had written a witnessed letter describing his wishes, including prepaid funeral arrangements, and stuffed the letter into an envelope with the phone number of the mortuary on the envelope. My second reaction (after mentioning the shovel) was concern that my father was telling me that he was about to die. “I’m just as healthy as usual,” he responded on that summer day at the age of 93.
Now, that’s no longer true. He is slowly being incapacitated by a growing intestinal disorder that is killing him at the age of 95. He has already announced that he is refusing further treatment and is ready to meet his end. Earlier this year, he had been taken to a nearby hospital by ambulance after falling on the floor overnight. After waiting impatiently in the emergency room he gathered his strength, pulled out the monitoring cords from the hospital equipment surrounding him and managed to get dressed and WALK out of the hospital doors.
A few weeks ago, he spent an hour on the phone with me that was far less considerate than my joking “Let me find my shovel,” remark. He spoke ill of every member of our family, including myself. For more than an hour he made my life a living hell from 8,000 miles away. Fortunately, his rancorous diatribe came just hours after I had attended a Trudy James workshop focused on the desire of the dying to specify their feelings at the end of life. Learning of this, I could offer a required, tolerant ear and simply keep my response to three syllables: “I love you.”
Before that, we had spent two weeks together this past Spring as we slowly said our goodbyes. I was able to get a few additional memories when we both could talk, touch, and even laugh at times. At one point, he remarked that at some point soon he will be laughing about my searching through the house for a shovel. Still, he will know that I care about him.
I am better prepared for death this time than when I faced my mother’s end three years ago. Death may not be proud when it comes for my father. I, however, am proud of myself.
Barbara Sehr is a technical assistant to Heartworks and the Speaking of Dying team.