The 9 Insights To The Wealthy Soul
They were at once the most beautiful and the most difficult words I’d ever heard spoken. My mother and I stood by the doorway, helpless spectators when we heard them.
Henri had entered the room just a short while ago. She had stood still — almost as still as my father’s unmoving body — remaining that way for what seemed like minutes.
My mother and I glanced at one another, curiosity penetrating our distress. And though it didn’t lift the darkness of that distress, the curiosity was a light. Tiny and distant, it was the same light just on the other side of all great pain, if we just knew how to step through.
The curiosity persisted. What was the nurse doing in her stillness? It seemed she was “sensing,” I thought. But sensing what? Was it the presence — or lack of presence — of a spirit somewhere between its earthly and its celestial home? Later, when asked, she would say she had been looking for respiratory signs. But at that moment, her silence appeared more a merging; she momentarily one with her patient.
My mother had told me the hospice nurse was special. I had been flying from Atlanta to my parents’ Florida home every weekend the last four months, every other weekend for another four months before that. It was a trying time both physically and emotionally, trying to build my new practice, attending my own patients, then on the phone with my mother and father every day and actually back in Florida every weekend. But compared to what my parents were bearing, it was a small load for someone young and healthy.
Nevertheless, a tremendous burden had been lifted when Henri had begun making her weekly visits. Her straightforward ability to look death in the eye, to smile and talk about it honestly and compassionately to my parents, had an immediate effect on both of them. It is a skill doctors generally lack, the point when all their medical advances and knowledge become useless, the point when most of them start concentrating on other patients.
This was the first time I had met Henri. She always came on Tuesday. I was there this Tuesday because I had not returned to Atlanta the last weekend knowing that my father was “close enough” to where I could no longer leave him or my mother even for a short four- or five-day period.
Our introduction was brief. A whispered hello and a shaking of hands in our foyer. My mother apprised her of the situation and she went straight to my father’s room.
It was then that Henri stood there. I glanced at my mother, as frozen as the nurse. What could I do for her? What do you say to someone who is losing her partner of more than 40 years?
Henri finally moved, kneeling beside the bed. The metallic bars, the electric crank, the medicine table were all too familiar. A small wave of horror had passed through me when I arrived home Saturday. It was nearing two decades since another hospital bed had been brought to our home to claim dominion over the bedroom I grew up in, a frightening dragon image whose presence had incinerated the innocence of my childhood. I had forced myself to throw off the emotion, reminding myself that the previous ordeal had been the single most important experience in determining my values and path in life.
My father’s body remained still, but suddenly, as if sensing Henri’s nearness, he awoke, lungs gasping, eyes fluttering. He looked around, bewildered, frightened. Beside me I felt my mother’s emotion, felt helpless to comfort her … or to aid him.
“It’s okay, John,” the nurse smiled, taking his hand. “It’s just me, Henri.”
He focused on her, on the soothing voice. “Henri?”
“It’s me. I’m right here.” And then she said it.
Words that were so straightforward, so to the point. Words that were gentle as prayer but which took the courage — no, the guidance — of Grace. Words that at once shocked but which transcended the greatest comfort, the highest kindness.
“You almost went last night, didn’t you?” she said.
My father nodded, then began crying. It was only the second time I had ever seen him cry. He, former international businessman, former boxing coach, former military pilot and commander who imparted nothing but strength to his division of quivering, diarrhea-stricken young men on their way across the Atlantic to their first — and for many their final — combat mission during World War II. Crying uncontrollably.
Henri’s eyes brimmed behind her glasses, but the smile remained. My mother’s body wracked silently beside me. I bit my lower lip, tears just a blink away, but not coming until a long time later, as I write this.
Every night for nearly the last half year my father had gone to sleep with the prayer that this would be his last night. That he would be put out of his pain, out of the misery of seeing his once proud 180-pound body slowly wither to half its original weight.
But last night was different. It came after a day when none of the medication had provided relief. Even tranquilizers wouldn’t put him out. Finally, past midnight, he took four more — double the maximum dose — and fell into a deep, troubled slumber.
The spare room where I was staying was adjacent to my bedroom, our temporary hospital ward. I had gently led my mother into her room down the hall, insisting she close the door to get a good night’s rest.
“But what if he goes tonight?” she protested, expressing the agony and unknowing she had gone to sleep with every night the last half year.
“Mom, you need to rest. I don’t want to lose … I don’t want you to collapse.” I had stopped myself just in time. “I don’t want to lose you, too,” were the words I had almost said.
It happens to many caregivers; after months — sometimes years, as in my mother’s case — of tending to a terminally ill spouse, the caregivers themselves have a stroke or nervous breakdown. I knew my mother was already in the first stages of adrenal exhaustion. Afraid to leave my father’s side, she would still have to run out to buy something two, three times a day in the Florida heat, trying to cater to the every whim of a dying man.
Night brought no relief, only compounded the problem. Until last week when they brought the hospital bed, she lay sleepless in the same bed with my father, aware of his every movement, his every breath, not knowing if it would be his last.
“I don’t know if I feel right about this,” she said, resisting my efforts to close her door.
“Mom, you haven’t slept properly for over six months.”
“But you don’t sleep either when you’re so close to him with your door open.”
“Don’t worry, I sleep. Besides, I’m younger than you.”
“But what if you don’t hear him if he wakes?”
“I hear his every movement, Mom.”
“Then you’re not sleeping.”
“I do,” I sighed. “I just sleep with one eye half open.”
“Why don’t you let me switch off with you in a few hours?” she persisted.
“Because your body is already exhausted.” I touched her shoulder. “Mom, we have no way of knowing. Dad may not go for weeks … maybe months more.”
“Oh, don’t say that,” she whispered. We had already gotten past the point of feeling guilty about praying for the end of his misery. Only those who haven’t experienced the horrors of a prolonged terminal illness can moralize about such thoughts.
I kissed her on the cheek, guiding her into the room. “Everything will be okay, Mom. Go to bed.” With that gentle command, I shut the door behind her. I had no fear she would wake up. Despite her reluctance, once she lay down, exhaustion would quickly claim her until morning.
In complete darkness I navigated my way to the end of the hall. I stood outside my father’s room, attuned to every movement within. Though I could have entered without a creak, I remained outside. In the morning, after my first night home, my father told me he had “felt” I was in the room with him throughout the night.
“I woke you?” I asked, horrified to have disturbed him.
“No,” he shook his head. “No. It was just a sense of you. As if you were constantly there.”
In fact, I had checked on him countless times throughout the night, sleeping a half-sleep, attuned to the slightest movement from his room, to every barely perceptible creak from his bed each time he shifted weight. Only in this way could I be sure to wake up if he did. Though the nurses didn’t understand how he could still walk, he refused to call us when he had to use the bathroom, his fierce pride providing a strength that long ago should have left him. And in the darkness, half asleep, his stumbling gait could result in a fall. Thus my vigil.
“You have a very reassuring presence,” Dad had told me that first morning. Reflecting on those words, I began to understand how when someone is just a thread away from crossing over, things like a feeling, a presence or a sense of something become more of a reality than anything we’ve grown accustomed to perceiving our entire lives through our five senses.
But now, my fourth night home, outside his door, I wanted nothing to interrupt his sleep, even something as ethereal as “a presence.” Besides, standing still in the darkness, head cocked to the side, some neurological circuit to a sixth sense of my own was opened to replace my lack of sight. This, added to the sounds coming from within the room — the slow, stertorous breathing, the bed’s tiny metallic creaks — provided near complete information as to my father’s state.
Once sure of his comfort, I back-stepped from the complete darkness of the hallway, moving in degrees like in a tai chi exercise, one foot behind the other, into the moonlit obscurity of the spare room. Inch by inch I closed the door, sliding it across my fingers in the last degrees of its arc so as not to make any noise as it settled into the jamb.
Only then I turned on the lights, slowly letting out my breath and moving to where a two-inch thick piece of foam covered by a sheet lay on the floor — my makeshift bed brought with me from Atlanta this last weekend.
Too wired to sleep, I glanced at the clock. 12:30. I picked up a thick book laying beside me on the floor. Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny had been my bedtime companion for the last eight months of weekends spent at my parents. Better than a powerful sedative, I needed only pick up the 1951 classic to find transport away from the heaviness of my immediate world. It took a few minutes, but by the second or third page I felt whisked aboard the rusting battleship Caine, living out the harrowing story of Ensign Willie Keith as he and the crew faced the perils of World War II under the insufferable leadership of Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg.
Hearing the ‘40s dialogue reading how Keith would entertain the crew on the piano with then-hits If You Knew what the Gnu Knew and Begin the Beguine, another sensation would overcome me. It was the feeling of excitement for the heyday of my father’s time, the excitement of youth and the freshness of looking forward to the future.
In the last years, coming home on the weekends and going with my father to the golf course, I was continually struck by something mundane: My father and his buddies — all in their 60s and 70s — were indeed once young men. Products of a generation, they bore traits and a dialogue distinct from my own, but carried the unmistakable insignia of youth like that which I bore from my generation four decades after my father’s.
It was a revelation, like growing up and realizing “The Ice Cream Man” and “The Garbage Man” and “The Milk Man” were individuals with an entire spectrum of life outside the childlike perception of them as embodiments of the daytime hats they wore.
And perhaps for that reason, The Caine Mutiny, more than any other book I could have picked up at the time, provided a release for me. I would at once be removed from my immediate circumstances, but with no guilt. Somehow, as opposed to feeling I was abandoning my father, this story was a medium through which I was in fact getting to know him better.
Suddenly, a creak. I dropped the book and leapt to my feet. In one motion I turned off the lights, opened the door and was in my father’s room. I can’t describe how I perceived it through the door, or how I distinguished it from the other tiny sounds of a house at night, but I knew instantaneously this sound was different. I can only describe it as the same sixth sense of a mother who suddenly breaks from a conversation to bolt out the door to a child who has fallen from a swing. On recollection, the person who’d been talking with her can always recall some tiny sound, but the translation of that into a call for help seems possible only through the filter of maternal instinct.
“Are you OK, Dad?” I asked in the darkness, already knowing he was not.
His hand was groping on the nightstand, knocking over the bottle of valium he was trying to return.
“Dad, I’m here,” I repeated, lightly touching his arm.
“Yes. It’s me, Dad.”
He flopped back, grimacing, still trying to upright the bottle. I gently took it from his grasp and replaced it for him. I tried to keep my voice calm. “Dad, are you OK?”
“Not so good,” he clenched his teeth. Then summoning that awful strength of his, he took hold of my offered hand and anchored himself back to the present. “Son, I want you to listen to me.”
My stomach knotted and I wished I could somehow save him from saying what I sensed was coming.
“Take care of your mother,” he said.
I looked over at the bottle of pills, not knowing how many he had taken. I blocked the awful thought out, knowing it was unimportant, it being his decision at this time when he was so close anyway. I squeezed his hand. “You know I will, Dad.”
“I know, son.” He took in a breath, floated off for a second, then pulled himself back. “Grieve for me one or two days then get on with your lives, understand?”
“We will, Dad,” I nodded, fighting the natural instinct to deny what he was saying. I blinked away the mistiness in my eyes. “We’ll miss you, Dad.”
He was silent for a long moment. Just when I thought he had floated off and I should leave the room so as not to disturb the peace of what might be his final sleep, he whispered, “I wish I could have left you some money, son … wish there would have been more where your mother wouldn’t be needing everything of what there is.”
I shook my head, wishing he somehow could have let go … at this moment at least … such mundane concerns. “No one could have left a son more, Dad.”
He was silent. I said, “You’ve prepared us in every way, done everything a father could possibly do.” In fact, he had spent the last six months showing my mother and me everything: from teaching her such simple things as paying bills to showing me how to spray the house for bugs and the degree to which I should maintain the plant beds so they wouldn’t be overtaken by the lawn. In his perfectionistic fashion, Dad showed us all the little things we would eventually have learned easily on our own, but which would have overwhelmed us if we had to learn them all at once. Though at times he could drive us crazy with his impatience and intensity over these little things, we never had any doubt that it was his way — his final way — of showing us his love.
In as many words I told him this, let him know I knew it. Then I said, “And as for money, you’ve left me more than any father could have left a son. You’ve left me a legacy. You taught me your system.”
Though his humbleness kept him silent, I could tell I was touching something deep in him, something that calmed the struggle. His voice was hoarse. “You learned well, son.”
“I had the best teacher.” I didn’t know where the words were coming from, only knew I was saying the right things. Over the last months, I had prayed to God — something I was relearning how to do — to give me the words when the time came. Now He appeared to be answering.
“I didn’t think…” It was taking all Dad’s energy to speak. “I didn’t think you’d ever take to the stock market.”
After two years of training me and fighting a disease, fighting an inexorable clock, fighting his own perfectionism — after two years of fighting his impatience with a son’s dull-headedness for anything financial — he said it: “I’m proud of you, son.”
For a moment I didn’t know what to say. For me it had been two years of confronting the greatest differences between us, all my college years’ frustration relived; he then pushing me to stay in the secure path of a healthcare career education, me continuing to veer off, writing stories when other students were up all night studying, me going to Hollywood to peddle television and movie scripts while my peers were off on summer vacation.
And now, one and a half decades later, having been successful in healthcare — having even grown to love it — finally having achieved a balance between it and my writing career, here was Dad, pushing me to add one more thing — a financial thing — to the precarious teeter-totter of happiness I had achieved. He even went so far as to write a 3,000-word article entitled THE 9 INSIGHTS OF THE WEALTHY SOUL outlining everything he wanted me to learn just to make sure I had something tangible with which I could follow through.
Copyrighted by Dr. Michael Norwood
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