ON September 9th, 2010 my Dad, Fred Lanphear, died. Until his 72nd year, he had been a tireless worker. He thoroughly enjoyed working in the garden, carpentry and designing landscapes. Although he was a professor of horticulture at Purdue University in his thirties, he was “Mr. Fix-It” to the youth of the student house and “Farmer Fred” to his fellow Songaians. He was also a scholar and a deeply spiritual man. His spiritual guides included Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thomas Berry.
THEN, in 2008, Dad was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. He grieved about the diagnosis for two weeks, but then he chose to talk about his terminal condition more optimistically. “I could have died of a heart attack in the middle of the night, he said. But then I wouldn’t have had a chance to say goodbye”. Instead of waiting for death, he wanted to find new ways to be of “service to my community” in his final years.
DAD’S large frame, which was used to working long hours in the garden, withered over the next three years. His limbs atrophied and his hands twisted into claws. He became totally dependent on others to brush his teeth, feed him his meals, scratch his nose and “wipe his bum”. But as his body withered, he gained a detached and more enlightened perspective on the world.
SPENDING time with my Dad during the last two years of his life was precious. Whenever we visited, he invariably had a list of garden chores for us. He would supervise us from his deck, but you could tell he was yearning to weed, dig the earth, move a boulder or build a planter. He helped us experience the joy he had felt working in the garden.
I read aloud to Dad once he could no longer hold a book. We read articles from the Times, “Siddhartha” by Herman Hesse and Tony Judt’s book, “Ill Fares the Land”, to help us understand how the US had lost its way.
ONE of the precious gifts he shared was perspective. One day, Bob, my brother, and I were complaining about the recession, corruption and the excessive power of mega-corporations in the United States. “I have a lot of optimism about the United States”, Dad said. “Really?” I said in disbelief. “Yes”, he said. “I am certain that the United States will be in a better place in one hundred years.”
HOW can you argue with that? ANYTHING can happen in 100 years. I also realized from our discussions that if you want to bring about fundamental change in the world, you better learn patience; it takes time.
WE also talked about compassion. One day, after a reading, we talked about how to be compassionate to everybody, even your enemies. I argued that most of us couldn’t achieve that level of compassion. “How can you have compassion for a man like Dick Cheney, I said, when he caused so much suffering?”“Everybody is trapped in a role, he said. If you recognize that, it is easier to be compassionate.”
CARING for my Dad could be exhausting. It was an endless series of chores that often continued throughout the night. Early on, he needed to be turned 3 or 4-times each night. I marveled at my mother’s strength in caring for Dad and his failing body. Then, in the third year of his illness, I worried that it was taking too heavy a toll on her health. But he refused to be hospitalized or go to an extended stay facility — a decision we supported.
IN the second year of Dad’s illness, the community of Songaia — an intentional community in Bothell, Washington — marshaled their support. Marilyn and Jeanne created a weekly chart for people to sign up to help care for Fred. Every day, Brent would arrive at 7:00 am with his coffee and a book to help with the two-hour morning ritual. Nartano and Tom did the maintenance for his power chair and adapted the cottage for his ever-changing needs. Cyndi, Helen, Jeanne and Michelle each came once a week to massage Dad or do exercises with him. Barbara came daily to help him stretch his legs and arms. Carol helped with laundry and other chores. The list goes on.
EVERY night, Songaians and other friends arrived in pairs – often including their children — to help get Dad ready for bed and assist with his exercises. And there was always a steady flow of visitors throughout the day.
THE night of Dad’s death we drove from Vancouver, BC to my parent’s cottage at Songaia after receiving an urgent call from my mother. She said, “You need to leave now, but he will wait for you.” I didn’t know how she could say that with such confidence, but I never doubted it.
WHEN we arrived, Dad was sitting in his power chair gasping for air; he was breathing over 30-times per minute to compensate for his weak inhalations. The entire community was milling about his cottage. They had come to sing to him and say goodbye. There wasn’t much volume behind it, but he sang along with them.
THEN, after the community departed, Dad called each of us to his side — his children, his grandchildren and, finally, his wife, Nancy – and, between breaths, gave us his blessing and said how grateful he was for each of us, how proud he was of us.
HAVING exhausted his blessings (and himself), I brushed his teeth, my mother gave him his evening medicine and we wheeled him back to his room. Bob and I moved him from his chair to his bed using the Hoyer lift – a crane used to move human bodies. He asked Sandy, my sister, and I to help with his exercises.
AS we were finishing up his exercises, Dad called out for Mom. His eyes began to glaze over. Mom arrived and quickly assembled the family around his bed. This was a ritual she had done with other friends and family. Two grandchildren in the circle were held aloft as disembodied heads on computer monitors via Skype from Norway and Scotland. Only Rachel, my eldest daughter, who was attending McGill University in Montreal, wasn’t able to be present.
WE held hands (and computer monitors), hugged and cried as Dad’s breathing became more sporadic and infrequent – the agonal respirations that often precede death. Then he died. His body was still. Mom hugged him, laid her head on his chest and wept. I imagined the energy leaving his body, seeking a new home in us or the trees and rocks outside of his cottage.
Mom and Bob bathed and dressed Dad in a brightly colored dashiki, an African hat and a blanket. He looked regal in his deathbed with his brightly colored outfit, his prominent nose and bushy white beard. Michelle, one of the many Songaians who had adopted my parents, joined us as we said goodbye to Dad. We thanked him, told stories and proclaimed toasts with a tawny port and Oreo cookies.
IT was comforting to have Dad’s body lying in the cottage. I found myself stopping to touch his arm, hold his hand or stroke his beard and, one more time, say good-bye. Or switch hats. Dad was a man of many hats. Bob liked the regal African hat, Sandy liked the black beret, and I liked the baseball cap he wore in the garden. You never knew what hat he would be wearing the next time you stopped by his deathbed.
ON the day after his death, the community held a 3-hour circle to share stories and gratitude for Dad. My wife, Nancy, and two of my daughters, Ella and Martha, sat by my side. We laughed, we cried. Although we missed Rachel, we took comfort in each other and in the community.
THAT evening, we opened the doors of the cottage to the community. We drank gin-and-tonic, Dad’s drink of choice. People walked through the cottage, laying flowers, bamboo shoots, notes and other gifts on Dad’s chest. We gathered around his deathbed and sang his favorite songs to bid him farewell, to comfort each other and to celebrate his life.
MY Dad lived a good life. He felt blessed. He lived life to the fullest. He loved and was loved. I often recalled a quote by George Bernard Shaw when I thought of him.
“This is the true joy in life: The being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one. … I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die – for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no “brief candle” to me; it is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”
I will miss the old man dearly. I will miss reading with him. I will miss our discussions about spirituality and biology. I will miss his wisdom. I feel a deep gratitude for my father, my family and the communities he helped to foster, but it is tinged by a deep sadness and loss.