On the four-hour drive out to the Minnesota/South Dakota border to visit my failing father, the spirit you get from the landscape is one of renewal and rebirth. The middle of May is really just the start of spring in this northern climate, and the grass has just now become fully green, with vast stretches of bright yellow dandelions blanketing many of the fields. The trees are still a very light green because the buds have just opened. In some of the farm feedlots, the Holstein herds have given birth to some of the spring calves, and in the low-lying marsh areas, Canadian geese are already leading goslings around the shallows.
On higher ground, farmers driving $150,000 John Deere tractors have begun planting their fertile fields; here and there faint rows of seedling corn, sugar beets and soy beans have begun to sprout.
Look objectively, though, and you notice that it’s not all greenness and rebirth and fertility. On another field, a different farmer is plowing under the decaying, rotting stalks of last year’s corn crop, recycling the once-living organic material. In the marshes, it is the decaying residue of cattails and marsh grasses where red wing blackbirds choose to nest. Every mile or so, some kind of creature killed by traffic is heaped on the shoulder of the highway—sometimes identifiable as a white tail deer or raccoon, but sometimes so battered and bloody that you can’t even tell what species you’re looking at. There are some farms dying too. Some farms are amazingly wealthy, but other places have been abandoned, with buildings that are falling in upon themselves. Graveyards of old tractors and threshing machines can be spotted rusting away in shelter belts of trees surrounding old farmsteads. As a final reminder, it is Memorial Day weekend, and most of the tiny towns along the route have placed flags and banner spotlighting the local civic cemeteries, honoring the war dead.
At first, the recognition of how much death and decay exists alongside the fertility of spring is a little depressing to me, perhaps because of the nature of my visits with Dad these days. But then I begin to relax philosophically, and come to realize how natural it is for decay to exist alongside rebirth. They do go hand in hand, really, and in the words of Ecclesiastes (or the Byrds), there is a time for every purpose under heaven.
It’s a little harder to keep this in mind when I reach the rest home in Hendricks Minnesota at midday. The feeling here in the hospice unit of the nursing home is of the human condition deep in late autumn, with the days of winter just around the corner. Spring is a long, long way off here in the inner halls of a modern American nursing home. It’s hard to avoid the recognition that these are places where many of the elderly and sick come to die, and for the first hour or so, it’s pretty hard to feel anything but the spirit of demise here.
Dad is asleep in his chair when I arrive, doesn’t stir when I rub his arm and speak to him. I let him sleep and just watch him, letting it be enough just to be present. His breathing is labored, and periodically his arms and shoulders twitch and slightly convulse. His arms and shoulders have become quite bony and thin, but his calves and angles are puffy with edema. His overall color is becoming more ashen. But his hair is neatly combed, and even now has more dark than grey in it. He is cleanly shaven; he still does this himself each morning. Dad was always pretty meticulous about his personal grooming, a guy who would shower and shave before bed. And the only guy I ever knew who would scrub off the bottom of a lawn mower after each mowing.
But it’s a somber scene, frankly, and I have trouble seeing the “circle of life” at work here the way I did out on the open farm country. All I see is the nadir of that circle. But when Dad wakes up and sees me, a smile of recognition breaks across his face. Over the course of the next two hours, Dad is “present” some of the time, but often drifts off to a different place. “Who’s picking me up today?” he asks one minute, even though he’s not been any other place for many weeks now, and won’t go anywhere ever again. But then the next minute he’s asking me about my business travel, where I’ve been recently and where my next trip will take me. He asks about my kids, about my wife, asks if they ever found that jetliner in the south Pacific. Then he tells me that yesterday he took a tour bus ride down the St. Croix river with old Navy buddies. I don't disabuse him of the notion. These days, there's no particular harm in allowing dream/fantasy to encroach a little. The bus tour seems to have been a lot of fun.
Then I hear young laughter out in the hallway, and I look up to see two little grandchildren visiting their grandma in a nearby room. I glance outside Dad’s window to see wrens nesting in the bush outside. And on my father’s bulletin board is pinned a picture of my own kids, young adults now, a snap shot that was taken with my father when they took it upon themselves to drive four hours and visit him a few weeks ago.
The fact that my dad has lived his live, and lived it well, that is the reason I am here, and by extension it’s the reason my kids are here too. To live, to exist on the planet, is also to die. You don’t get one without the other. So in a strange but real way, life and death are exactly the same thing.