From Friday to Monday, we sat vigil at Dad's bedside, until emotional fatigue and the opinion of the doctor sent us back to Minneapolis to rest. We're told that Dad has come back from the immediate brink, and that his core vital functions are now just stable enough that he could now last as much as a week or so. Further, he's no longer aware of our presence, and seems to rest better in quiet than when constantly attended. My brother and I are badly in need of recharged batteries, so we headed back to Minneapolis knowing that a last return trip out to far southwestern Minnesota is coming pretty soon. Sitting bedside by a dying parent gives you a lot of time to think, and in between periods of sadness, I found myself wondering a lot about the faculty we call personality—what is it that creates the "person-ness" of an individual being.
At the opposite polls of ideas about what constitutes a personality are the clinical scientific definitions on the one hand, and the romantic, spiritual ones on the other.
The first theory would have us believe that the individual "self" or "soul" is really in the final measure just a complex and sophisticated interaction of chemical signals and genetics—a model that is ultimately understandable through scientific means. The other pole would have us believe the soulful personality is something transcendent, an entity that can't be explained empirically, but only grasped spiritually.
Oddly, as I watch Dad's unconscious face, the first explanation would be a little more reassuring to me. Seeing the flitting emotional expressions that cross his face unconsciously, I would be comforted to think that these are just residual electro-chemical impulses, and not expressions of a soul or personality trapped in a biological organism that is steadily ceasing to function. But watching these expressions, I see just too much of Dad's individuality, his person-ness, to allow me the first interpretation, and this makes it hard to watch these final days. Like a new-born infant sleeping, Dad's face in semi-coma is a canvas on which a variety of emotions appear from time to time In the slight wry grimace, I see his disgusted scolding of me when I was 17 and coming home after drinking beer with friends on a camping trip. In his low chuckle, I hear him laughing with delight when my kids, his grandchildren, did something precocious to to amuse him. In the furrowed brow and intense look of concentration, I see him watching the nightly news during the Vietnam days wondering what the hell was going on in this country.
Now, for the first time, I really see the strong resemblance to each of my brothers. My youngest brother in Dad's mouth. My second brother in his eyes and forehead. A little bit of my own kids in his expressions. I still don't really see much of myself in him, though others have told me they spot me as his son from a mile away.
There is just too much person-ness there to explain it as mere neurological chemical activity. What will happen to that person-ness in the next few days? When he does pass away, that personality will certainly continue to dwell in some fashion in all of us who know him. And I still have the strong intuition that there's more to it than that. When I look around at the natural world, I see no evidence that anything, anywhere, dies without returning. Spring follows winter, growth sprouts from decay, producing seeds that lead to green growth and more decay, and more life. Neither matter nor energy can be destroyed, and it seems only logical that the energy of Dad's person-ness will be going somewhere in the very near future. 'Only symbolically,' some skeptics might say to me gently. 'Not literally.' To which I would reply that symbolic truth is the most legitimate kind.
On the long drive home through the agricultural prairie, massive recent rains have left the ground completely saturated. No only are the marshes full, but the low areas of every planted field have become small lakes. Rains so heavy that that they've made the national news wires and closed some of the highways we normally travel on. This water is now slowly moving toward creeks and rivers under the gentle tug of gravity, and already back in St. Paul, some of the water that fell here in the last few days is making the Mississippi River rise toward major flooding. Eventually the water vapor that fell here as rain will become part of the Atlantic ocean again, and sometime after that, this moisture will fall here or elsewhere as rain again, and will begin another journey back to the ocean. The substance of the water vapor will not have changed at all in all those iterations, and every present action ripples into the future. As Einstein seems to have believed, past, present and future really exist simultaneously, if we had the faculties to see it.
The heavy rains and temporary lakes out here in southwestern Minnesota have also brought out lots of wild life, especially birds. Many are feeding off the worms, insects and small animals that have been brought up out of the ground when it became full of water. On the telephone wires, in the ponds, on the fence posts and in the skies I recognize fresh water pelicans, egrets, meadowlarks, kingfishers, red wing blackbirds, red-tail hawks, bald eagles.
I knew the names of all these birds and many more before I was five years old, because they are things my father taught me before I even started school. And in musing about the fact of fathers teaching their children things about the world, I have the answer to my questions.