Admittedly this isn't the cheeriest subject for New Year's Eve, the last day of 2021 -- how we should live as if we and our loved ones are going to die.
But I got to thinking about this after watching an episode in Season 1 of Dickinson, an Apple TV+ series about Emily Dickinson, the 19th century poet.
Dickinson feigns illness in order to have more time alone in order to write her poetry. Her family has a doctor examine Dickinson. Given the sad state of pre-Civil War medicine, he misdiagnoses her as having a fatal disease.
What I found fascinating was how her mother, father, and brother reacted to the prospect of Dickinson's impending demise.
One by one, they entered her room where she supposedly was dying and proceeded to be wonderfully honest.
Rather than their usual repressed selves, playing their rigid traditional roles, they spoke freely about their life, their regrets, their secrets. They could do this because their vision of Dickinson's soon-to-be death allowed them to be who they actually were, not who they pretended to be.
Sure, there are pros and cons of such honesty. Sometimes it makes sense to wear a mask that disguises our true self.
On the whole, though, I believe we'd be better off with that sort of transparency. Life is short. We don't have much time to come closer to our loved ones, friends, acquaintances -- the people who often fail to really know us because we don't allow them to see who we really are.
Being 73, I'm well aware that death can appear in a life at any time.
My mother, father, and sister all died at about my age. So in a sense I feel that I'm living on borrowed time. Several close friends from high school died many years ago. After watching that episode of Dickinson, I'm feeling like I need to live each day with a greatfer appreciation that I'm going to die.
Not immediately, almost certainly. But it could be sooner than I've envisioned -- which tends to be about ten years older than my current age, a bet that becomes less winnable with every passing year.
It's always bothered me that a Celebration of Life for someone only happens after they've died. That's when people speak about how much the person meant to them. Nothing wrong with that, but it sure would be a heck of a lot better if that honest talk happened while the person could hear those words.
Like most of my New Year's Resolutions, I'm not sure whether I'll be able to keep up this resolve. The Dickinson episode just made me realize how much I regret not being more open with my mother, father, and sister before they died.
Unlike Dickinson's family, there was no doctor saying "Your loved one is going to die." So there wasn't a sense of urgency that might have caused me to take a chance on being more honest about my feelings toward them.
Now it's too late, obviously. I think back to the one hour I had face-to-face with my father, a tale I've told in a blog post.
When I saw him for the first and only time in a Boston hotel room, he'd told me that he was being treated for emphysema at a Boston hospital. But there was no mention of a fatal illness. So he and I wasted that one hour, as I described in the post.
My half-brother, Mike, opened the door. Apparently my father needed some support during this visit. John walked up to me and shook my hand. We didn’t hug or anything. No tears of joy. Nothing that you see in the movies. Real life isn’t like the movies.
What is real life like? Real life is having one hour in your life face-to-face with your father, and spending that time looking at General Electric manuals that he had arranged on the bed prior to my arrival, efficiently opened up to pages that he wanted to impress me with.
I sat down on the edge of the bed. I dutifully thumbed my way through manual after manual, listening to my father’s stories about how he went into GE plants that were having problems and got them back up to speed. “What the hell?” I kept thinking to myself. “If this is how my father wants to spend his time with his long-ignored son, so be it.”
We got through all of the manuals. I shook his hand again. When the door shut behind me and I started walking down the corridor to my rented car, I was so happy. Not happy that I had finally gotten to meet my father—happy that I would never have to see my father again.
Which I never did.
There's no way to revisit the past. I deeply wish I could. I'd somehow summon the courage to say, "Dad, we have so little time together. Let's be real. I don't want to look at those manuals. I want to get a glimpse of who you really are, and show you some of who I really am."
Hopefully I'll do better in the future. There's always so little time, and so much we should honestly share with those we're close to.