Embrace the Dirt Nap


My father died in bed just about the time our plane set down on the tarmac at BWI airport. It was earlier than we expected—but maybe just what he'd hoped for.

"I guess this is it," he'd told me days earlier when he called to say the doctors had run out of ideas for fighting his cancer. They gave him anywhere from two weeks to two months. To play it on the safe side, I booked the first available flight east. My sister planned to drive over the same day so we could have a family visit and a collective send-off.

My son Anthony and I traveled light and made good time. We arrived to the house maybe 45 minutes after wheels down. But when she opened the door, my mother shook her head, unable to speak at first. My sister and her family, having arrived immediately before us, stood in the hallway behind her.

My father, I learned, had balked at the prospect of the family gathering.

"I don't want the boys to see me this way," he told my mother. Perhaps through sheer will, he was gone before we got there.

Gone, but still in that bed.

My mom asked Anthony if he wanted to say goodbye to his papa. He charged up the stairs, followed by his cousins and, more slowly, the rest of us. We clustered around the old man, held his hand, and paid our last respects.

Some people seem to find it odd that we'd invite our kids into a room with a dead body. "The notion of one day disappearing is contrary to many of our defining cultural values, with death and dying viewed as profoundly 'un-American' experiences," wrote Lawrence R. Samuel in 2013 for Psychology Today. "Death and dying became almost unmentionable words over the course of the last century, topics not to be brought up in polite conversation."

Kindred Western cultures share a similar taboo. "More than half of Britons in relationships are unaware of their partners' end-of-life wishes," Louisa Peacock noted for London's Daily Telegraph in 2014. "Eight in 10 of the people surveyed by [the group] Dying Matters said people in Britain are uncomfortable talking about dying and death."

But Peacock notes that mortality and death were common topics up through Victorian times. That was an era when life was shorter and illness ever-present, and hard facts required attention.

I guess my family is a little old-school. My son was not unfamiliar with death when we arrived at his grandparents' that day. In our home, dogs are part of the family, and Anthony was there when the two mutts who shepherded him through his childhood left this world. He clutched Sadie for a final photograph just an hour before cancer took her. And he held Max's paws with the rest of us as the veterinarian ended our old buddy's suffering.

Maybe I raise him this way because death is far from an alien concept for me. By all rights, I should have pushed up daisies long ago. The time I plunged through the ice over a river during a winter backpacking trip was certainly a close call. So was the crash that pinned me under my motorcycle in the middle of traffic in 1996.

So I raise my son with the knowledge that death comes to us all. Running upstairs to say goodbye to their grandfather was hard for Anthony and his cousins, but it was also something they wanted to do, for themselves as much as for him.

I'm hopeful more of our friends and neighbors are coming around to our way of thinking. "'Dying well' or achieving 'a good death' is in fact gaining considerable social currency, with many sensibly proposing that planning for the end of life is at least as important as planning for any other stage of it," Samuel wrote in that 2013 article. "Those who have mastered the art of dying see death not as a stranger or the enemy but as an essential, natural part of life."

Dodging weeks of deterioration and pain, and passing away moments before his grandsons viewed him in a state that he expressly didn't want them to see, would have struck my father as "a good death," I think—at least as good as was available under the circumstances.

And since we're all going to take that final dirt nap anyway, assuming ownership of our fate, within the limits of our abilities, gives us as much control as we can have over our final moments. That's what I call an honorable end.