I once heard that the greatest gift a parent can give a child is to die well. At first, that seemed like a pretty stark thing to put at the top of the gift list from someone who gave you life. Over the years, though, I’ve come to see the wisdom of these words.
Life is the initial gift we get from our parents. Sometimes it is given joyfully, and that usually seems preferable. Sometimes it is received joyfully, and that also seems preferable, given the alternatives. Even so, I can certainly understand the circumstances in which life would not be given or received with joy. I feel certain it was given to me with joy, and I wish I could say I had always accepted it joyously, but the record shows that I didn’t particularly like life very much for a number of years.
Death has never struck me as preferable, regardless of how negatively I have felt about life. The end of each composition is enough of a death for me, for now.
So I am still here after that initial gift, 4.5 dozen years later, now enjoying life quite a bit, which is to say I’m not taking any of it for granted. The night sky, the fresh hopes of youth, the sounds made by skilled musicians – these are all wonderful sparks that illuminate and engage more than ever.
My mother died almost three weeks ago, and the way she died certainly counts as one of the great gifts she ever gave me. Her digestive system having failed her, she slowly starved to death, rejecting any intravenous supplements or pain medications. She did this without complaint — indeed, taking every opportunity to exclaim how lucky she had been in life, how much she was enjoying every moment, every interaction with friends and family. Her last words to me, barely intelligible because her voice was so thoroughly parched, will remain private, but they were clearly calculated to give me comfort and strength. Speaking with others who communicated with her in her final days, a pattern emerged of a person who was consciously demonstrating how to die with grace and dignity.
So is that the greatest gift she has given me? Still seems like an odd thing to say, when my mother was renowned for her generosity, even getting audited by the IRS once because they couldn’t believe how much she gave to charity.
But the gift of dying well serves as instruction on how to live well, and that’s a lesson I can turn to every day.