We buried my father a few weeks ago. A metastasized melanoma had traveled from his leg to his lungs and then to his brain, eventually taking his life. The loss, the sorrow, the not understanding left the entire family in tears. Our first instinct was to cry and ache. It was a good instinct.
Yet none of us could ignore the fact that his death had to happen sometime. He was 75 and for almost the last decade our family knew it was a matter of counting the years. We saw him with eyes that knew both he and we were getting old, yet there was no way we could know how his death would come.
I was the one who had cancer first. My dad, my whole family, stood by me and we all accepted my cancer as part of life. Regardless of the disease, our lives were full. When I was told there was a 50/50 chance of it returning, the doctor said it would most likely appear in my lungs. How shocked I was, almost as if there was a mistake, when it reappeared in my father's.
Cancer stripped my father of his capability. When he was no longer able to throw darts, play golf or communicate in a rational way, our second instinct was to think how cruel death was. But, after my own cancer, sometimes I wonder.
By many standards, my dad's life was uneventful, maybe even boring. He was not an award winner, a traveler or one who got a lot of attention. He was only a simple stock cutter, deaf since infancy, who felt like an outsider all of his life. He scarcely had a childhood in a poor Jewish family, mostly tagging along with his three brothers, feeling uncomfortable because he was only able to communicate by making awkward high-pitched sounds associated with deafness.
Even though he found a new world at the Faribault School for the Deaf where he could relate to others and they to him, show his confidence, and even speak clearer, he was always intimidated by the hearing-dominated world he lived in. He was a decent basketball player, a firstbaseman in kittenball and a better than average boxer, but those were all small parts of his life and didn t help him find comfort as a deaf person at the grocery store or the bank.
I remember him best preparing for work as I got ready for school, silently going about his business, cracking open a two-minute egg and eating it right out of the shell as he read the morning news. Everything he did seemed silent, his job, his manner, his work around the house. Some might say my dad's whole life was silent. Where was his statement, his place, his mark? Yet my dad, in life and death, had attained something most of America will never achieve.
He was true.
Harvey Burton lived life without any pretensions. How many of us can say that? He didn't pretend to be anything he wasn't he didn't even know how to. When he spoke you knew he truly believed every word he said, always remaining simple. Even with his hard upbringing, life owed him nothing. He wanted plenty of things he didn't have, and there was plenty he was sad about, but with hardly another word he accepted it. It was still his life and it must have been okay because he was living it.
Others might question the worth of his life, yet no one can tell me its worth was any less than those considered great. The moment any person looked into his eyes and saw a simple and honest man -- a humble man -- his greatness was written. The moment you looked to him and knew he was someone you could trust you saw the greatness in being a human being, in being alive. It was a simple greatness. And, if he had it, it must be available to us all.
When we first told him that the melanoma had come back in his lungs, I remember him, flush in the face and slightly teary-eyed, saying, Well, I guess I'll have to start living life one day at a time. I became teary-eyed myself because that was what he had done all along. That was where I learned it from. Though I can't plan to save my life, I've never found it difficult to value each day for what it was because of my father.
As things got worse, it was sad watching him lose what he saw as his manhood. He needed help walking and remembering things. He even got lost once walking alone to the end of our block. We all cried thinking that was the worst thing that could happen to him because, in dad's life, all he really needed was control of his own personhood, his own space, a quiet place to read the paper, a job he could accomplish -- but he had lost even that. That was cancer's worst blow.
Yet, like the loss of his youth, he accepted it. He let mom tell him all the things he should be doing when normally he would be busy voicing his own opinion (even when he was wrong). But with wide eyes and a half smile, he'd nod and consent to his wife like a child obeying his mother.
The cancer reached his brain and soon he spent all his day on the couch with the TV on though he couldn't hear the sound or read the captioning. He talked in whispers, much of the time not making understandable sense as he battled with bouts of un-cognizance and awareness.
In discomfort he'd make soured faces at us and twist and turn signing that it was over, "finished." He signed in his sleep, his brain living stories and memories as his body died.
Those were the worst moments for us, knowing we were helpless. Taking turns, us six kids would visit mom and dad's house and sit, if only to hold dad's hand, to look into his eyes and let him know we were still with him. It was those times we would see him perk up. How much he loved just seeing his family. Once making the connection, his eyes lit up even brighter than in his younger days. Brighter, lightened as if the unburdening of the worries of his life made him see more clearly how happy he was just to be with his family, just to sit and be alive.
What he achieved in death was perfect humility. It was in his eyes for the briefest of moments, sitting on the couch looking up earnestly, hopefully, his weak hands held outstretched in those of my sister, standing in front of him. A quiet smile of joy and a twinkling in his eye said perhaps that was all he was meant to do in life. That was all that mattered, being a part, listening for another voice, the warm grasp of his own child.
When dad breathed his last breath, the whole family was around his bed at home. Because he couldn't hear us, we all had our hands laid on him in the last few hours as our best way to connect and communicate. And when he died we all lost something we can't explain, a part of ourselves, a part of our family, a part of life.
But something too was gained. We got to be a part ourselves, of another life, of each other once more. We got to share the closeness we all once had and, together, say goodbye to our father in the kindest way we knew how. It was -- and I believe there is such a thing -- a good death.
God bless him.
copyright Scott Burton p.o. box 581083 Minneapolis, MN 55458 firstname.lastname@example.org