In the 2003 film “The Last Samurai,” Captain Nathan Algren is asked by the young Japanese Emperor to tell how the titular character, the Samurai Katsumoto, died. Algren responds, “I will tell you how he lived.”
How do we spend our last days and hours, especially when we know they are just that? Do we die as we lived? Are deathbed conversions a spiritual revelation, or the chemicals of the mind and body boiling together in one final fire of life? Do these fading moments reveal our true hearts?
I have seen the last hours of family and friends who knew the show was about to close. The masks dropped away, leaving the bare face that is the soul. In the last light of life, they revealed who they were across all the days they lived.
My mother’s life was very confusing to me. I can recall moments of tenderness, of humor, of fleeting kindness. But never joy. She suffered from significant physical ailments that ruined her body and her mind. She seems, in retrospect, to have been an always-angry person, bitter from multiple children and the exciting life dreamed but not lived. The diseases that tortured her were mental, physical, and spiritual. She tried to cope with prayer and alcohol, incense and cigarette smoke, and always with rage, her constant accomplice. Her body twisted, and her mind followed along. Things meant to soothe her demons only excited them, letting physical and emotional violence rain down and run amok.
After many false endings, time wrote her final chapter. Facing the unknowable, she was in her last hours as she had been at her worst hours. Raging and loud, angry beyond reason, lashing out with more fierce energy than her rapidly failing body should have been able to muster. Her last breath, drawn just hours before her sixtieth birthday, did not call out to God but rather goddamn you all. So, for all the mercy and understanding, the darkness won.
My sister followed my mother a few short months later. Anne Marie was a funny, kind, beautiful soul who, at the young age of thirty-two, was stricken with an unusual and cruel illness that appeared suddenly and relentlessly stole her body but never her spirit. Her last weeks were a torture of desperate treatments and experiments intended to heal but instead just delivered more destruction. She fought as she lived, not passively but not with the outward rage shown by our mother. Her concerns were for her family, especially her two young daughters. She knew her passing would be unbearable for them. And for the brothers and sisters that stood by her bedside, fighting to make the right decisions. Though most did not believe in miracles, we wished for one.
Through it all, there were moments of great conflict, terribly unfair decisions asked of those tasked with making them, and pure dread. But from Anne Marie, there was gentle humor and compassion for we who suffered and mourned her passing.
In her last minutes, she lay peaceful, quietly breathing until there were no more breaths. I stood, with our sisters and brother-in-law, holding her hand, and felt her let go. It was devastating and beautiful. There was no darkness, just the light of a gentle soul. Nothing in my life, before or after, changed me more than that moment.
My father, emotionally battered and broken by the loss of his wife and child, somehow managed to find a way forward, though his body, scarred from years of bad health, stuttered and faltered occasionally. He continued being a dad to me and pappy to his grandchildren, finding bits of happiness in the warm sun of his new home in Florida.
When his systems began to fail with greater frequency, he struggled to live in a way that didn’t upset the individual bonds that extended from parent to child. It was difficult, really impossible to do. So, in the end, he chose to fight no more and let the natural process come to him.
He lay sedated in a hospice bed, two of his daughters and I, his oldest son, sharing the watch, each of us urging him different things. I said in our last minutes alone, “You’ve done enough, so you decide when to let go.” His face, still handsome till the end, transformed from the one I had seen throughout my life into my brother’s face, revealing a familial lineage I had not recognized before. It was the only moment, aside from the sadness of the circumstance, that genuinely unnerved me. As he was shutting down, his brain, soul, spirit, whatever one believes, expressed his final protests in muted groans and fleeting grimaces.
I stepped out, realizing I needed to dash to the airport to pick up another sister who had flown down to be with him in his final hour. As I got to my car, my phone rang. He was gone. I drove to the airport, greeted my sister’s flight, and shook my head as she came down the jetway. It was over. Dad died as he lived, trying to make everything okay for everyone. He realized the impossibility and chose what was right for him. Not passive, not angry. Just accepting.
An accurate telling of how he lived can only be found through a kludged kaleidoscope of memories and interpretations. I saw, at the end, the person I always knew.
My friend and colleague Janice and I were not related, though our parallel Bronx Irish Catholic upbringings and shared values could argue that we were a part of a much larger family. Janice was smart, funny, bossy, and overly loyal to her co-workers. She was also one of the most tenacious people I have ever known, made so by the battles she fought in her unfairly short lifetime. A young widow raising three daughters, a breast cancer survivor left with lingering physical issues from that battle, Janice was ultimately thrown into an unwinnable war with pancreatic cancer. We often spoke as she underwent treatment and a brutal surgery that tortured her body and spirit. Her sadness and fears were not solely focused on her destiny. She was all about her daughters Denise, Susan, and Megan—her girls.
Janice fought on for what seemed like forever, moving from Connecticut to Boston to be with her family. On a cold and grey day, Denise, whose home became the gathering place, let me know the time was near. I drove north through an endless traffic jam and reflected on our unlikely friendship. Denise and her sisters welcomed me, and I joined them and other family members who had come together, as families do, to comfort and support each other in the fading hours. I was able to spend a very few minutes with Janice. We sped through ” I’m so sorry” and “I love you, my friend” and got to Janice’s core—her girls. She was worried for them but also sure that they would be fine after she was gone. She raised them with her spirit and courage and left them with us all after her eyes closed and her pain dissolved into the universe.
At her funeral Mass, I had the opportunity to give a short remembrance. I practiced my piece so I wouldn’t stumble too badly. I did okay until the end, when I looked up and saw her family, her girls, and choked up on my final line, “I will miss my friend.”
In the years since these passings, I have experienced the loss of other friends, some gone quickly, others after great, almost heroic battles against an unbeatable foe. I found myself confused about my responses, often profoundly emotional for friends not seen in years. We shared a time when we couldn’t contemplate any of us dying, wandering through our lives intact until we were not so young. And then they were gone.
At the wakes, the funerals, the memorials, and the reunions, we squint to find traces of our missing friends and families in the faces and voices of the children they begat. Will they need someone to tell them how we lived? Or will they know us by how we passed?
In his last moment, surrounded by the horrors of war, the destruction of his tribe, and the end of the Samurai, Katsumoto attained the peaceful beauty of perfect cherry blossoms. Birth, death, beauty, and violence. He died as he lived.