Death and Life in Exeter

We had talked about it. With my parents aging and me leading a tour of Europe every year there was always the possibility that something would happen while I was away and that I simply would not be able to be there, that I could not leave forty people to fend for themselves across Europe no matter how well organized things were. We had talked about it, and we were all agreed that it would be alright.


My son Mark and his wife Stephanie are here in Exeter, England. Mark is pursuing his graduate studies in Staging Shakespeare. This year’s travel plans were to have me leaving a few days before the group and stay with Mark and Stephanie in Exeter, and see a play that Mark produced and acted in. Before I left my dad had a difficult day, but seemed to be alright. Just a lot slower. He and I sat out on his front deck for a while the day before I left. We argued a bit about him not driving anymore – of course he did not want to hear that – but most of the time we just talked. Before I left I told him not to check out while I was gone. As I walked down the path I called back over my shoulder that I’d see him later. He said “yup.”

I arrived in Exeter yesterday, after a delay at the Dublin airport, to news that my dad was in the hospital and that it was not looking good. I took that news with me to Mark’s play, Swift as a Shadow (short as any dream). It is a play that Mark and a colleague produced and directed and acted in that used Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets as an exploration of, “the moment of death itself – the instant between life and death, as it were . . . indeed, this play takes place within that instant, exploring a swift and dreamlike glimpse into the mind of a dying man.” from the director’s notes.
I was caught up in Shakespeare’s moments of death and love and dying as I thought about the passage my dad was at that very moment preparing for. It was surreal, it was sad, it was happy, it was thoughtful. It was full of death and it was full of life. I think the instant of death is just that, death and life all rolled into an instant. Half a world away by good dad was lying in a hospital bed approaching that moment at the same moment I was vicariously on a similar journey. You can’t write this stuff up. Truth is stranger than fiction.
Today, Sunday, June 6, 2010 we went to church at the Exeter Ward and to Evensong at Exeter Cathedral. After a pleasant walk in the sunshine we came back to a message that our family was gathering and that the moment for my dad was near. Mark called Holli at the hospital, and just six minutes ago my dad had slipped peacefully away.
June 6th. My dad was always very patriotic. He is a veteran of the Army Air Corps and was very proud to have been part of “The Greatest Generation.” His love of country was part of what interested me in American history, an endless subject I voraciously read about. Dad and I had talked about D-Day, and I had read a lot about it. Some years ago on one of my Europe trips I talked the group into a day trip to Normandy and Omaha Beach, site of the difficult American invasion of Nazi occupied France that had taken place on June 6, 1944. It was an overwhelming experience, and I wanted so much to share it with my dad. I borrowed my coach drivers cell phone and called him – 5:00 A.M. his time. I told him where I was, and then I choked up. I could not speak. We were both silent for minutes. Then I heard him say through a cracking voice that he understood. That was it, but I had been able to really, truly share that overwhelming moment with him, something I knew he would appreciate. It now seems quite fitting that he should leave on the anniversary of that great and terrible day.
So what we had talked about, my dad and mom and me, has come to pass. I am over here and they are over there. I will stay, and meet my wonderful tour group in Rome in a couple of days. I will show them the absolute wonders of Europe as we travel through Italy, Germany, Switzerland, France and England. In a couple of weeks, as we all stand on the beach at Omaha, and as I tell them of all that happened there 66 years ago, my dad will be at my shoulder and we will again share that moment together. I love you dad.
Death and Life – it is all one.
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