Quaker Advices and Queries 30 says:
Are you able to contemplate your death and the death of those closest to you? Accepting that fact of death, we are freed to live more fully. In bereavement, give yourself time to grieve. When others mourn, let your love embrace them.
Twenty years ago when we were first married, I used to follow Spiderman around the house saying ridiculous statements such as, “Promise you won’t die before me.” I could not bear the thought of being without him. Spiderman, thankfully, had enough sense not to answer me. Four years later when he developed cancer I was sure this was some karmic punishment for demanding that he outlive me. After four months of chemotherapy I was told by our oncologist that he was not showing signs of improvement and so I should treat Christmas as if it were our last. By the grace of God the tumour began to shrink in January and he made a full recovery. During the year he was critically ill I developed an inner strength and coping mechanisms I did not know that I possessed .
Two years later, my beloved father was struck down with a rare type of brain tumour. It reduced a man with a genius level IQ to that of a toddler who needed help tying his shoes and had to be reminded to flush. He lived 18 months, 6 months longer than expected, and I was there for him in the end. I left work, moved home and cared for his physical needs. Now he was the baby and I the loving parent. The two weeks before his death remain burned into my brain. It was not a time of pain or distress, but a time of letting go, a time of ebbing away. I watched as he hung up the winter coat of life and waited to exhale in eternal spring. I was able to be strong for my mother because I had practiced dealing with death two years before. I am convinced to this day that one of the reasons that Spiderman had to endure cancer was so that I would not fall apart at the death of my father. Death was not some dark creature that stole his life, for he gave up each act of living freely when the time was right. First eating, then drinking, then waking and finally breathing. The night he died my mother and I sat by his side and sang to him every folk song we could think of and read to him and told him to let go. He died in my arms and I can honestly say, that the best two weeks of my life were caring for that man.
A few years ago, my mother met a man called Jamie, a lovely man who made her laugh again. It is not good to be alone. She brought him to England to meet us and I liked him from the start. He was big, like an ole bear, with a beard you could lose a badger in and a generous heart. The moment I met him the words stepfather tumbled off my lips with ease. Despite only meeting twice, we kept up correspondence by email; he was forever sending me vegan recipes he found or free software that I might be able to use at school.
A month ago he went to see his doctor and he was very suddenly diagnosed with skin cancer from one of his many moles. Tests quickly revealed it had metastasised to his lungs and his brain. I felt winded from the news and can only imagine what my mother felt. But she, having been through the experience before, drew strength from my father’s death just as I drew on my experience with Spiderman. One death prepares us for another. So now we watch as Jamie gives up the things he does not need. One needs to pack lightly for this journey. My mother phones me by the hour and I receive the calls late into the night and give her comfort. And so today, just as the sun was rising, Jamie drew his last breath and has entered into a state of peacefulness—one where there is no fear, no pain, no sorrow and no death. He has been healed, because he is free from the things that make us mortal.
There is a line from a song in the musical Into the Woods that says,
“Sometimes people leave you
Halfway through the woods.
Do not let it grieve you.
No one leaves for good.
You are not alone.
No one is alone.”
It has taken me many years to understand that when we have memory, when we have loved and been loved in return, we are never alone. My father and my stepfather will always be with me. I have been lucky to have had the gift of these two good men in my life. I give thanks for their lives and for their peaceful deaths. May it be true for all of us.