MY FATHER DIED in bed just about the time our plane set down on the tarmac at BWI airport. It was earlier than we expected--but maybe just what he'd hoped for.
"I guess this is it," he'd told me days earlier when he called to say the doctors had run out of ideas for fighting his cancer. They gave him anywhere from two weeks to two months. To play it on the safe side, I booked the first available flight east. My sister planned to drive over the same day so we could have a family visit and a collective send-off.
My son Anthony and I traveled light and made good time. We arrived to the house maybe 45 minutes after wheels down. But when she opened the door, my mother shook her head, unable to speak at first. My sister and her family, having arrived immediately before us, stood in the hallway behind her.
My father, 1 learned, had balked at the prospect of the family gathering.
"I don't want the boys to see me this way," he told my mother. Perhaps through sheer will, he was gone before we got there.
Gone, but still in that bed.
My mom asked Anthony if he wanted to say goodbye to his papa. He charged up the stairs, followed by his cousins and, more slowly, the rest of us. We clustered around the old man, held his hand, and paid our last respects.
Some people seem to find it odd that we'd invite our kids into a room with a dead body. "The notion of one day disappearing is contrary to many of our defining cultural values, with death and dying viewed as profoundly 'un-American' experiences," wrote Lawrence R. Samuel in 2013 for Psychology Today. "Death and dying became almost unmentionable words over the course of the last century, topics not to be brought up in polite conversation."
Kindred Western cultures share a similar taboo. "More than half of Britons in relationships are unaware of their partners' end-of-life wishes," Louisa Peacock noted for London's Daily Telegraph in 2014. "Eight in 10 of the people surveyed by [the group] Dying Matters said people in Britain are uncomfortable talking about dying and death."
But Peacock notes that mortality and death were common topics up through Victorian times. That was an era when life was shorter and illness ever-present, and hard facts required attention.
I guess my family is a little old-school. My son was not unfamiliar with death when we arrived at his grandparents' that day. In our home...