As you get older, you get more used to death. At the very least, you become familiar with seeing your elders pass on.
Death can be painful; oftentimes more so for the ones left behind. It’s a tragedy when a loved one’s life is cut short; and for parents, the loss of a child must be the worst. Thankfully, I haven’t gone through that, but I can imagine how incredibly heartwrenching it is.
I’ve lost a lot of people who meant the world to me—friends, mentors and family members. The loss of my parents, Charles and Lois McDonald, was the most recent, but I don’t agonize over it. Theirs was, as my father would have said, “good” deaths.
They knew in advance they were dying, they endured a minimum of pain and discomfort in their final days, and they were as ready as anyone can be.
Both of my parents, when in their 80s, could have fought another round with surgery, but they chose not to—not because they didn’t want to live, but because they knew that if they survived the surgeries, their quality of life would be impaired. They knew it was their time to go, and they accepted it.
They believed in God and a life beyond this life, but that’s not really why they didn’t fear death. They counted their blessings to the end, held their family and friends close to their hearts, and embraced death as a natural conclusion to their wonderful lives here on earth.
My heart was both emptied and filled by their passing. I miss them, but will always be thankful for what they passed on to me and mine.
As a family, Thanksgiving has become our favorite holiday because of an annual reunion my parents helped create and sustain through the years. Every year for the past 20-plus years, my family gets together at a mountaintop lodge in the Ozark Mountains, where we celebrate our lives and loves together.
I still remember my parents sitting in the commons area at the lodge, with my mom softly smiling and my dad laughing out loud as the little ones scampering about playing with their cousins, aunts and uncles, siblings and friends. You could tell in my parents’ eyes how special it was to see their large and boisterous brood together in one place, enjoying the love and security that only a family can provide.
When their health prevented them from attending, there was a heartfelt absence. It’s tough not to have the elders around.
Again this year, I’m heading back for our annual event. Nowadays, I feel a loss every time I return to Arkansas, where I was born and raised, but I also feel a spiritual presence. The memory of those who went before us hovers over the trip, somehow transcending time and space.
My cousin Phyllis once told us about how her parents, Betty and Tom Welch (who died a few years prior to my parents), loved to dance in their living room when their kids were young. On the night her father died, a year or so after her mother’s passing, she said she awoke shortly after 2 a.m. and exclaimed to her husband that her parents “are jitterbugging in heaven!” Before she went back to sleep, she said, she looked at her bedside clock—and later found out that it was precisely the time of death listed for her father’s passing.
I take great solace in that story, though I honestly don’t know what happens after we die. My faith in God isn’t strong enough for such certainty.
Still, I think there’s something out there, something that’s greater than the sum of our parts. And based on the influences of my family, especially my parents and my children, I’m convinced it’s Love.
This year at Thanksgiving, I’ll get to see the next new generation in my family, some of whom I don’t even know yet, and I’ll feel the presence of those who came before us all—my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. They will be there in the spirit of the moment.
Mom will be smiling that beautiful smile of hers, and Dad will be laughing out loud. And Uncle Tom and Aunt Betty will do a little jitterbug in celebration for the lives they brought into this world.
And for that, I’ll be thankful.
Tom McDonald is founder of the New Mexico Community News Exchange and editor of the Roswell Daily Record. He may be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.