A blessing occurred in Brewster, Massachusetts, yesterday. A 90-year-old man who lived every day of his life exactly as he chose died quickly and peacefully, before his choice – or his awareness of his choice – could be stolen from him. Charles Ross, Sr., born January 25, 1922, died freshly scrubbed (he’d just had a shower), in the care of one of his favorite nurses at about 9:45 a.m., October 10, 2012. The end came very quickly, within the 15 minutes or so between the time of the nursing home’s urgent call to me and my running through the facility’s automatic doors.
He hadn’t seemed quite himself for the previous week or two, though there were no vital-sign statistics to back up my intuition that something was just, well, off. His voice was softer, he was more likely to be sleeping in his wheelchair when I came through the door and there was a stronger sense of depression around the fringes of the inordinate optimism through which he typically looked at the world. One telling example occurred about a week ago, when he complained that he’d missed having corn on the cob this summer. “Well, now you’ve got something to look forward to next year,” I said (yes, I seem to have inherited that envelope-pushing optimism). “I’m not so sure about that,” was his uncharacteristically dour response.
Then, from Stage Left, entered Rex the Wonder Dog, the last significant cast member in the comic drama Dad and I have been living the last 4-1/2 years, and Dad’s spirits ticked up. It was just one week before Dad died when I walked into his room with my new four-legged buddy, a 2-year-old flaxen-haired beauty with a disposition so sweet and calm that, in his presence, one can see the possibility that, in one of his many previous incarnations, the current Dalai Lama was, perhaps, a golden retriever. During a subsequent visit, Rex and I sat outside with Dad and, with his hand on Rex’s head (and, referring back to the absence he’d seen in my life since my old pal Bart’s premature demise) Dad made the statement, “Well, now you have your dog.” At the time, I almost laughed at the solemnity of that statement and Dad’s delivery. In retrospect, though, I see it almost as a checklist item: Chuck has his dog, he’s not alone. Done.
So, now Dad is gone, at least in body. That line between here/not-here is just so distinct. Just five minutes ago, I caught myself in the pattern of checking the clock to see how much morning work time I had left before I headed out the door for my regular 11 a.m. visit. And, sometime in the next six months or so, that transition will be made even more distinct, when Dad’s ashes will be spread in Cape Cod Bay as he wished, near the little fishing center of Rock Harbor, where he loved to park his old Mercury Grand Marquis and watch the charter boats make their way in and out the channel. That area is, essentially, the same stretch of coastline where I once ran with Bart and now send Rex running after tennis balls, just a couple miles of marsh and shallow water away.
I wondered at Dad’s choice, originally – wouldn’t he prefer the company of other former Marines in the veteran’s cemetery, or that of the golfers along the course of his old country club? After all, he hated the cold, damp northeast winds that blow across the bay’s gray water in the winter, and he had no particular fondness for either swimming or beaches. But maybe he knew that, in the sand flats of Cape Cod Bay, he’d still get to enjoy his son enjoying his dog on a regular basis. A man who knew how he wanted to spend his life also knew how he wanted to spend the time that followed that life – and he couldn’t think of a better place to do so.
Rest in peace, Dad. You loved. You were loved. You will continue to be loved. And Rex and I will see you on the flats.