Some people, maybe you, are good at very intimate and personal ways to deal with pain and dying. I am not one of those people. I respect those with the skills and abilities to share the pain and transfer grace and comfort to those in need. In my education in engineering and business, the focus has been on science, numbers, and for the most part, transactions based on logic and reason. For sure, you can't be only a robotic number cruncher as trust and personal feelings are key, but all in all, I'm not cut out to be a social worker or counselor of feelings.
So it was with not only sadness, but personal "fear" when the husband of my only sibling, my lovely and beautiful sister, suffered a surprisingly rapid downturn (apparently with complications from Parkinson's), became unresponsive in ER, and eventually had to be put into hospice in Albuquerque. He died peacefully in a dignified way, surrounded by family. His memorial service at a modern, Unitarian Universal Church was filled with those who were touched by his life as well as my sister's. My wife, daughter, and I stood in the family receiving line, not knowing most of those present, and tried to acknowledge their care and support. My West Virginia accent seemed to return as I explained the many years that I had known him and his family, and how the three of us were connected. Receiving lines at memorial services are emotional and filled with tears and joyous memories.
Only a day or two after driving back home to Austin, I learned that a former boss of mine at Motorola for many years, a significant executive in the development of embedded controllers in the semiconductor industry and a personal friend, had been struck down by seizures and apparently complications of a prior heart attack and Parkinson's as well. My mother died of Parkinson's, and any mention of that insidious disease simply fills me with fear and dread. This man, a good, honest, humble man, had declined to the point where he was in "home hospice," with professional care but able to remain in his own bed while his last days on Earth pass. I had traded emails with some of my former work associates, and one of them, a very senior guy (a Mensch in all senses) wrote a wonderful tribute, and I felt that the family might benefit from both my visit to say goodbye, as well as to read the words of honorable praise. So I was able to contact his son and gain permission to visit. This man and I had worked closely for many years, as peers as well as a boss-subordinate relationship. My wife and I knew him and his wife from "way back" in Arizona, so I felt okay in requesting a visit.
The drive to the home took over an hour in typical, terrible, Austin congestion, and gave me some time to think about what I would say. When entering the home, which was the very first house the couple had bought when they moved to Austin from near Phoenix back in the mid-seventies, it reminded me of the humility and common sense of these people. I met all the (grown) children, and hugged his wife. What do you say when there is not much to say? Too much to say? It seemed clear to me that my visit was not a burden and that it was perhaps a positive break in the slow winding down of their loved one's time. After some remembrances of times past, with some funny stories about Christmas parties back in Arizona and ups and downs of the company's recent years (mostly downs as the industry has coalesced into fewer, larger firms), I read the written tribute to the wife and three kids in the living room. There were tears and treasured memories.
At this point, it was clear that the time was right to go in and say goodbye. His wife told me that he was not able to respond to me, but that "he will understand." We walked back into the master bedroom where he lay, under a very neat cover, and with what I suppose would be described as a death mask, or perhaps Parkinson's mask, or both. She woke him and announced that "you have a visitor," and he seemed to respond, at least a little. His eyes flinched a little, and his facial expression seemed to change, if only a bit. I spoke and told him who I was, and how much his life had meant to me. I was there to tell him goodbye and wish him the best.
At that time, with no obvious reaction from him, I took the print-out of the email and told him it was from our mutual "big boss," a man whom all of us held in the greatest respect and affection. I read it word for word, and although it was not clear that his reaction changed, it seemed to me that a door opened and many years of good things passed between us. I said goodbye by also gently rubbing his chest though the covers and left the room with his wife. It was profoundly meaningful to me, and hopefully gave some closure to the family.
There will be a significant memorial service, I'm sure, but the very personal interaction with his family and with him was something I'll treasure forever. Unfortunately, these things are becoming more and more "not rare," as my former work associates and childhood friends and I all pass through our eighth decade (okay, the mid-seventies!) of our brief life here. What a gift is was to say say goodbye to two good people in two weeks. In a very personal sense, I feel that I gained an important element of the human experience along the way.
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