I have never been ready for death. Even in the most gentle, expected situation, death feels like a blow, a stumble, a hard left turn. This came home to me clearly on the death of a dear friend and neighbor, Fred Lanphear, two-weeks ago. For the past three years, Fred had journeyed with a terminal disease, ALS, as his traveling companion. Learning of his prognosis, Fred decided that he wanted “…to make this final journey as meaningful as possible. The Universe was giving me the gift of knowing when I was going to die … how would I best utilize this gift?”
True to a life of intentional giving, Fred and Nancy chose to give this ‘gift’ away; to share the journey of his dying with their cohousing community at Songaia. They asked us to walk with them on their journey and envision it as part of the life and work of our community.
At first, I imagined this meant supporting Fred and Nancy during this progressively debilitating illness. Like other members of the community, I was glad to help: doing chores Fred could no longer manage, visiting regularly to encourage and support them, helping feed Fred at community meals, reading to him now and then, and helping put him to bed once a week or so. Fred and Nancy appreciated all of this and told us often of their gratitude. But I have discovered that this was only a part of their invitation to walk the journey with them. I didn’t really understand the nature of the gift until Fred had gone.
The morning after he died, I saw the community gather together with Fred and Nancy’s family to tell the stories of his life and hold each other in the grief of our loss, and the joy of Fred’s life. I saw the kids of the community move naturally between mourning and playing as they realized Fred was gone and life went on. I saw friends, family, and neighbors gather flowers, plants, and vegetables from the garden Fred loved to lay on his chest and at his bedside. I saw my almost-twelve year old son lead me gently forward to view Fred’s body at his home, full of compassion for my grief.
In the weeks since his death, I see how his passing continues encouraging me to be gentle with others in the work of building community, and regularly nudges me not to withhold any small act of loving kindness I might give away on my journey. What is my work if not this? For of course, all our paths eventually make the same turn. Death holds open the door that swallows our life, and yet Life continues.
I see more clearly now what Fred and Nancy may have meant to share: that our connection with each other is what gives meaning to life’s journey, and that caring for these connections is what transforms us and the world. I suspect that it is the only thing that has the power to do so.
In loving remembrance of Fred