The Last Act of Love

Tom Friedman died at 3:43 p.m. today, Central Time.

A bit later Nurse Ellen said, “See, I told ya. He waited until all four of you were here. It was his last act of love.”

*  *  *

We have, all of us, embedded deep within our biological self, a shutdown program that, except for very rare occassions, each of us uses just once, if at all. That shutdown program helps us transition from I’m-here,-thank-you-very-much,-this-is-quite-nice,-isn’t-it? to I’m outta-here,-never-to-return,-but-it-surely-was-fun,-wasn’t-it?

In one sense the running of the program lasts for the blink of an eye, and, in another, it lasts hours or days. Five days, the hospice people say, is the normal outside limit.

I’ve seen that program run, up close and very personal, just three times — first some ten years ago when our kitty exited this mortal plane, and then July 27, 2007 when my wife’s mother exited, and now through my beloved father’s exit today.

I will not detail here what the running of that program looks like. There are plenty of online resources. Suffice here to say that, from an outside perspective, it looks mostly peaceful, but also somewhat scary and foreign and, ultimately, final and unidirectional, in the sense that things happen which, even if you know nothing at all about the human body, you just know are irreversible: you can just tell when you see them that there’s no turning back, no undoing of that which just done got done.

And a lot of it can look like a coma.

*  *  *

Within that can-look-a-lot-like-a-coma, though, Nurse Ellen tells us that the heart of the father and of the husband is capable of choosing the just-right moment — the right moment among all the effortful breaths and pulses and oxygenations at which to begin the final different-in-kind breaths, as the invincible life force surrenders to entropy and the punctuated atoms of a human being become, once again, more or less, undifferentiated stardust. 

Tom Friedman, my dad, my mother’s husband of 65 years and father to my sister and brother and grandpa to my young nephew, chose his moment well. Starting on Tuesday — when he had what we now know was his final health downturn — we all had our separate times with him. First my mother and brother were with him that day. Then my sister flew in that night. And then I flew in on Wednesday (having just left his side on Sunday). Thursday was then a mish-mosh day and a time for all of us to be together with him in various combinations and permutations. And then this afternoon, just about five hours ago, we all were there to see him together. It was the first time we had all been together, all at once, as a five-some, since I-don’t-know-when. Years, maybe. Modern life.

*  *  *

The final part of the shutdown program took about one hour. And then it was peacefully, beautifully, permanently, releasingly, over. He lived 90 years minus a month minus a day, aloft within this loverely ol’ world of all of ours.

That was his final act of love, Nurse Ellen says. He was waiting for all of you to be here. He was doing his best to take care of all of you, right up ’til the end.

Yes, he was. And, yes, Dad, we will miss you very much. You were really something. And you wrote a great last chapter for yourself and for your loved ones. Thank you.


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  1. Posted by Judith on Saturday, October 5, 2013 at 2pm
    Dearest John, What a lovely tribute to your daddy. I remember the events of which you speak when my brother, Jeff, died. My sister, Karen, and I were with him for those last final breaths. It was like birth I think, so extraordinary and yet so ordinary. You remain in my thoughts. Know that you are a special man who got to love another special man. Gifts abound in this time of change for all of you. Love you dear. Judith
  2. Posted by Nancy Donovan on Monday, October 7, 2013 at 2pm
    Looking at the blog post categories above (the elder years, death, love, big picture) I realize that it is so true that we are all in this together. We get to choose every day how deeply we participate. Life is so much easier when we know we have an active and loving tribe. John -- sending kind thought to you and yours through this difficult time. Thank you for sharing so beautifully. --Nancy