Hollywood did a piss job of preparing me for my father-in-law’s diagnosis in mid-August of terminal pancreatic cancer. Slow to be discovered and quick to consume the patient, we never saw this one coming. We are lulled into assuming everyone reaches their eighties these days.
Normally, we wouldn’t travel back to Germany so soon after our annual late summer visit, but Chris managed to get a week off. This would be his father’s last Christmas. I prodded Chris to make this trip happen, even if it was a short time.
It was indeed a nice, albeit tiring, stressful and intense visit. The whole family gathered several times. The nephews love the whole package: opening presents, making and eating Christmas cookies and the decorations. But although Werner, my father-in-law, was pleased to see us, I wouldn’t say he was a ball of joy – and I don’t blame him. There is a widespread assumption that when you know you’re going to die, you’re going to behave like every last second is precious. He is anxious and exhausted.
How does the rosy, unrealistic light of Hollywood color death? The cancer patient yells a vigorous, “Fuck you, death! I will FIGHT against you! Watch me flip you the bird!” And off that sick, dying person goes to climb Mount Everest, see the sunset over elephants in Africa, or to claim that sweetheart they left in Italy when the war ended. They call up the estranged family members and over home-cooked meals they come to new understandings, embrace tearfully and the family is intact again. Given the gift of a little more time, the dying right the wrongs, and the wronged forgive the past transgressions. Usually someone has a baby, thus hitting us over the head with the message, “Miraculous life goes on, dammit!”
The dying person ecstatically throw their grateful-for-just-one-more-moment arms around THIS BEAUTIFUL WORLD. At the conclusion of 90 to 120 minutes, both the departing and the ones they leave behind make peace with the circle of life and hold bouquets at the picturesque rural family cemetery. Tearful family members give speeches about how valuable life is and how we have only one to live. We need to treasure every single last second.
There’s a grumpy 67-year-old man drinking tea at his kitchen table in rural southwestern Germany who’s saying, “Fuck all this bullshit.” My father-in-law remains firmly himself as he puts his own death under a microscope and dissects its meaning. He meets death on his own terms, as we all must.
He doesn’t look back and think much about the three wonderful children he helped raise. He thinks about his mistakes and about how he now feels it’s too late to go back and try to work out past hurts.
Did he wish to travel anywhere one last time, maybe his favorite place, Greece? No.
Did he want to gather his siblings and half-siblings, many estranged, for a last reunion? No.
Are we also to blame? Do we take his rejections to our ideas too easily for fear of appearing like we’re harassing him? Are we too extreme in agreeing with him that his death belongs to him?
The diaries he kept intermittently throughout his life he burned. He didn’t want to be misinterpreted, with no opportunity to explain what he’d written.
He wants to walk the gray-green fields next to the train tracks, through the blackened, broken cornstalks. He wants to get through books, as reading helps pace the long days. Pages help heave down the curtain of night. Every moment precious? To him, every moment is torture. Waiting for the inevitable, and not knowing if it will painful, if he will be awake, if he will be lucid.
Who will be there? Will Chris and I decide to make a mad dash to Frankfurt International Airport to be at the deathbed? Will we come later, when Irmel sits alone, truly alone, with the lifelong demons of her bipolar disorder and the ghosts of past suicide attempts?
I don’t think my father-in-law wants any lasting monuments. He is to be cremated and placed in the 4-space plot with his wife’s parents. There is to be a simple service, ending with coffee and cake. He wants Chris to read a speech that he has already prepared. And then I believe he wants to disappear. He is happy to be forgotten. Do not roll the credits.