The last time I kissed my father’s forehead, the cold touch echoed the numbness within me. Even as I felt rooted to the spot, my mind rushed from one thought to the next. It’s strange, I thought, how the mind works at all when faced with death, and especially, what the mind chooses to focus on.
We attach curious memories to the days we come to define as endings or beginnings. Ask people what they remember about 9/11, and most will be able to describe in striking detail where they were and what they were doing at the precise moment they heard the news.
My mind seemed to ebb and flow between voices around me and voices — one in particular — from a time seemingly long past. I could hear a conversation about an upcoming wedding, “What are you planning to gift the couple? Will you attend such-and-such ceremony?” — as the funeral ceremony was being conducted. Interesting, I thought, that at the very least, death meant a pause. Clearly, not for everybody. How come? What did they know that I didn’t?
Related: I am Alive, but I'm Not Living
I remember sitting outside the ICU as the doctors tried to revive my father. Before they called me in to tell me that he didn’t make it, I already knew their efforts were in vain. I was angry. And I was at peace. Numbness had started settling in. My anger was about many things, but primarily at the callous nature of human beings in dealing with obviously scared family members. Even if death is expected from the time of birth, and even if death is the daily business of healthcare, shouldn’t loss be acknowledged with kindness? Isn’t a grieving heart to be treated as fragile?
As I continued to hear the voices around me, my anger kept pace with peace. The peace that came from the man who has taught me everything I know, including the magic of words. Every time I looked at his calm face — whether in the ICU or at the funeral home — I’d smile at our last exchange. He’d simply kept his palm on mine as if to say, “I’ve got this…as usual,” because he couldn’t speak anymore. He didn’t need to say anything, anyway. He had always known what to do. Even if the doctors did not. So, he let go. His calm acceptance of life coming to an end was my peaceful place in the midst of all the voices.
Most people find meaning as part of a bigger picture. Their aspirations are geared toward playing a role and helping others (usually, their own children) walk on the same path. Even though there’s no way to know for certain, they lead their lives and relate to others based entirely on the belief that their life stands for something in a vast universe. Why else would they exist at all? Is that why the end of a life before their eyes didn’t demand a pause?
I could also hear fragments of memories being shared, as well as soft whispers. I was in the presence of kind witnesses to my father’s life. They said he had lived a good life. As I held his bones — the only thing that remained after the cremation ceremony — on the way to a holy river for final rites, I felt nothing. This was all that was left of him. Or, was it? What’s the measure of a human life?
Most of our days are not spent contemplating the bigger picture. It’s the joy of a well-earned grade by that difficult-to-please teacher. It’s the promotion that comes after months of all-nighters. It’s visiting a much dreamed about city for the first time. Does the pursuit of happiness lead to a meaningful life? Maybe so, especially if we truly only live once. Is it selfish? And if it is, is it bad to be selfish in this context, where everyone is simply happy with their pursuits? Possibly not, if the focus is on happiness that does not come at the expense of another’s goals.
I’ve spent a year since that day focusing on just being functional — there’s a lot to be done once the funeral ceremony is over. I’ve discussed my father’s death at length with officials to simply fill out a form. I kept the tears to myself. I’ve got up, got dressed and showed up at work. I’ve taken the odd sick day. But, I’ve kept my focus on pursuing goals that my father and I dreamed up together. I’ve heard voices all year ranging from advice to “move on,” to “not doing enough,” as I’ve simply kept all the broken pieces of me together with the help of his lessons. It’s where I find my meaning — regardless of anyone else’s perspective on the right way to grieve. Discussing the intricacies of human nature is different from the pursuit of meaning in our lives.
What I could hear most clearly — then and now — was my father’s favorite song. It was a simple question, “What can I give you besides love?” That’s how he chose to define his life. If someone needed help, and he could help, he found a way to do it with love.
As Viktor Frankl has eloquently expressed, it is love that’s humanity’s salvation. As someone who found meaning at a concentration camp and the will to live, Frankl has written extensively about our search for meaning — if we must go through something unavoidable, we can at the very least choose how we feel about it — he chose his meaning through love. He describes it as a transcending force. I wondered, then, is it? Do human beings need something bigger — a context — of where they’re headed? Or is this life enough to feel fulfilled? Love inherently feels good in either context, doesn’t it?
Most people find solace in saying that my father has gone on to a better place. But where is that? And, how do we know? We don’t. That’s the point. The meaning we choose to give our lives is as unique as the journey we undertake in a lifetime. Whether we need context or are happy with the content we craft, the irony of life is that the meaning comes from the belief with which we struggle.
If we believe our stories form a bigger picture, we shape our daily lives in the hope of being rewarded. And in doing so, we add meaning to what we accomplish both for ourselves and others. If, on the other hand, we believe this life is it, we reward ourselves within our lifespans. And, in doing so, we achieve bigger and better things than before, in turn enriching the human experience in its entirety for everybody.
We don’t know why we love a certain genre of music or literature. We don’t know why a place resonates as home. All we know is that we’re here, and the measure of our lives must come from us.