The other day, I performed the solemn rite of white women in their late 40’s: I shared a photo of my lunch salad on social media.
The ritual goes like this: I post a photo of my lunch, and I complain about trying to lose weight, and then I humblebrag about my plate full of nutrient-dense leafy greens and lean proteins, and I say that between this and yoga, I’m going to live forever. Then my friends commiserate about how, if I keep it up, I’m not going to live forever; it’ll just feel that way. Then we all anoint ourselves in the digital stream three times, sprinkle ourselves with irony, and we are cleansed.
This ritual has worked for me for many years. I’ve always looked at health fanatics with something of a jaundiced eye, thinking, “If that’s what it takes to extend my life, I’d rather cut it short, thanks.”
Jokes like this were very much a part of my family culture, growing up. My father, in particular, believed that life was worth living as long as you were enjoying yourself, and if you weren’t, well, maybe your time was up. Or at least, part of him believed that. He especially liked to eat whatever he wanted, as much as he wanted, and he really relished heavy foods, sugary, fatty foods, noodles and greasy briskets and things filled with cream. (And so do I.) He wasn’t exactly a hedonist. He believed in constant conversion of heart and the resurrection of the body and things like that; he really did. But in practice, noodles and brisket often got the upper hand.
I want to tread carefully, because it’s easy to get carried away when you’re telling the life of someone who is dead. I don’t want to speak for him just because he can’t speak for himself anymore. So I will just tell you what I observed, as I remember it, and maybe the conclusions I drew were wrong. Nevertheless, this is what I saw:
My father’s health was poor for many, many years, partly because of his personal habits, and partly because of terrible genetics. I remember him going in for serious medical procedures throughout my childhood, starting at about the age I am now. He had a hard time staying motivated to take care of himself, although he did keep trying, for his family’s sake.
But eventually, he really lost enthusiasm. He had the choice to correct a problem with heart bypass surgery, and he didn’t want to do it. It just didn’t seem worth it to him. His family felt differently, and we urged him to consider it. We contacted a friend of his, who had had the same surgery done, and was very glad that it bought him some extra years of life; and that finally did it. My father agreed, and he got it done.
And he got better. He recovered well, even in his old age, and he started doing so well. He had a lot of health problems, still, but he accepted this; and my overall memories of him from this time are of him smiling. Smiling at my kids, smiling up at the sky, smiling at the brilliant clouds, at birds singing, at snow melting, at records playing. This was something new for him, or something he hadn’t felt in decades. He seemed to be enjoying himself in a way that I had never seen him do, ever.
But how strange it was, to see him looking small. I had to keep correcting the image I had of him in my head. I still thought of him as a powerful, deep-bellied, overbearing, heavily bearded man, taking up as much space as he wanted. Never bothering to whisper in quiet places, never bothering to follow signs that said “no admittance.” I still thought of him as doing what he wanted. And he wasn’t like that, anymore. His clothes hung loosely; the top of his head showed through his brittle hair. His voice was muffled, as if wrapped in cotton. He was so physically diminished, and he shuffled, and tipped over sometimes. But he smiled so much.
It was also during this time that some personal reconciliations happened, or started to happen. He knew he was at the end of his life. But that was the key: He knew it, and he was getting ready, rather than dolefully sliding along. He said that the Lord was taking more and more things away from him, and he was glad, because it was getting him ready for death. He smiled when he said this, too. He was grateful it was happening—the getting ready, not the dying.
So, then he died. It happened quite suddenly, and I’m not sure if it was COVID or not. He went to watch TV in his reclining chair, and when my brother went to check on him, he was on the floor. It was very hard when he died, and I won’t pretend he made his peace with every last person, or that he had righted every wrong, before he went. There were a lot of wrongs. But those last few years were undeniably, irreplaceably fruitful. For him, and for many of the rest of us. Fruitful enough that they are not yet over, even though he is dead.
If you are halfway imagining that people live the real bulk of their lives when they’re hale and hearty and doing as they please, and that they slowly dwindle into a less and less meaningful existence as the standard earthly pleasures drop away, well, possibly that’s true for some people. There are many ways for the course of a life to run, and not all of them are within our power. The end of my mother’s life looked very different from my father’s. But even that was not what you might think. Strangely enough, caring for her in her profoundly vulnerable and inert state was a huge part of what transformed my father’s final years, which makes me almost quake with fear when I think of my mysterious mother and her strange, quiet power to change people, for good and for ill. A power that continues to burn and insist, like the light from a star that is already dead.
As I said, I am reluctant to tell you what someone else’s life means. So I’m not going to tell you that the last two years of my father’s life were his most significant. I’m just telling you that there was a time when he thought he could have done without them, and he was wrong.
Take care of yourself. Take care of your poor, dumb, needy body. Your body’s time will run out eventually, because it isn’t meant to last forever; but it isn’t meant only for pleasures and satisfaction, either. Most people are joking when they say life isn’t really worth living if you’re just eating salad, but most people also halfway believe it. Don’t you believe it. Your time on earth is your time on earth. If you’re still here, it’s for a reason.
A version of this essay was originally published at The Catholic Weekly on May 5, 2023.