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Death as the Ultimate Surrender

Last week, my father passed away. He'd been diagnosed with brain cancer in April. After undergoing surgery to remove a tumor the size of a lemon on his frontal lobe, he was scheduled to have radiation treatment on the entire brain. Chemotherapy would follow to treat the underlying lung cancer that had metastasized. But his decline was quick, and the extra months we'd all hoped for were not meant to be.

Although I’m still deep in process over the loss of my father, I wanted to share some of the beautiful experiences I’ve had in the weeks leading up to his death. Growing up, my father taught me a lot about surrender. These were not easy lessons, and I wasn’t able to thank him for the gift until recently. My father was an unpredictable force in my childhood home. I loved him deeply, and he was a good man, but he’d grown up with an absent father and an alcoholic mother. No one had taught him how to take care of himself, let alone anyone else. I think he grew up believing no one was looking out for him, and that he had to fight against the world and everyone in it, if he wanted to survive.

In the last few months of his life, this need to fight was very present. From the day he was diagnosed to the day he died, he fought for his life, even when everything seemed to be indicating it was time to let go. None of the treatments for prolonging his life went smoothly. The incision from his surgery to remove the tumor didn’t heal properly, so a second surgery was performed, postponing his radiation treatment. This surgery also didn’t heal correctly and he developed an infection. This required a third surgery, in which they removed a large section of his skull. This further delayed any subsequent treatment for the cancer. All the while, he was declining quickly, having to be hospitalized multiple times for weakness, dehydration, etc. At every juncture, we questioned the wisdom of continuing. His path was incredibly difficult and all the medical intervention didn’t seem to be helping. If anything, it was making whatever time he had left unbearable.

But my father didn’t know how to surrender. He believed he had no choice but to fight for his life with every last ounce of strength he possessed. He was still fighting when the hospital sent him home under hospice care. He repeatedly showed signs of being hours from death, only to rally and surprise us all. He carried on, in his weakened state, for 5 days without any food or water. When I put my hands upon his body, I could feel it dissolving. Still, there was a current of willful fighting running through him.

On the night before he died, his sister flew in from the Midwest. She’d been a hospice nurse, so she was highly attuned to the subtle stages of death. She shared her experiences with us, saying that many late-stage, hospice patients return for a moment or two from unresponsive states like the one my father was in. In those moments, they would become suddenly lucid and speak with family members one last time before crossing over. She referred to those moments as “the gift,” saying no one ever knew when or if it would come, or who would receive the gift if it did.

Her view and acceptance of this was so deeply surrendered, it helped us all step into a place of surrender. We’d been sitting with my father for days at that point, taking turns holding his hand, not wanting him to feel alone when he crossed over, but also trying to hold on until the very last second. In the deeply-surrendered presence of my aunt, we all realized that holding his hand was just another way of trying to control what was uncontrollable. He was fighting to stay, and we were fighting to keep him there, even though every sign indicated his time on this planet and in his body were done.

In a moment of courage, we all agreed to try to let go and truly surrender to divine will. We could see how we’d been fighting just as much as he, just in a different way. We decided to let go of our agendas by stepping out of his process completely and allowing my aunt to care for him through the night. Instead of sitting by his side, we would all take care of ourselves and get some sleep. In this way, we would hold a cohesive and loving space of surrender for my father.

Although my sisters were sleeping at my mother’s house, I knew I needed to go home. I’d seen my father's spirit standing outside of his body with his parents several days before, so I knew he wasn’t alone. I also knew my aunt was the best-qualified person to see to his physical care. The only reason I really wanted to stay was that I still desperately wanted “the gift.” I knew I wasn't going to surrender that specific attachment unless I went home. Years of healing work have taught me that you can’t fake surrender. Surrender is an internal state, and I knew I wasn't going to achieve that state without giving up something for real. By going home, I would be giving up any chance of receiving that gift. After all, I couldn’t receive it if I wasn’t there. I comforted myself as best I could, surrendering to the fact that I might not be meant to receive a gift. Or maybe the gift was ours to give to him? I decided I could give him the gift of my surrender. I could let go of my agenda. In trust, I got in my car and drove away.

The next morning at 5:14, my cell phone rang. It was my mother saying he’d reached the stage where it would only be minutes before he passed. I was too far away to get there in time, but I told her I would come to be with her.

I got in my car and drove out of my neighborhood. As I came around a curve in the road, I saw a deer. I slowed and it crossed the road very gingerly in front of me, passing from left to right. I remembered a few nights ago seeing a deer move in just the same way. I’d been on my way to my parents' house, and when I’d reached their road, a deer had very gingerly crossed in front of my car, passing from left to right. I’d also seen a bird that night, flying right in front of my car, as if it were leading me. It had stayed with me as I'd driven up the hill to my parents' house. At the top of the hill, it had veered off and I'd seen a single bright star in the sky. Deer have always represented gentleness to me, and that night, I’d taken the deer, the bird and the star above my parents' house as a sign that my father was about to “gently fly up to the stars.”

When I saw the deer that morning, I knew it was again offering gentleness – this time to me. It crossed the road, heading for a mist-covered field. The sun wasn’t visible yet, but the sky was light and the beauty of the deer and the mist-covered field filled me. My father was dying, and it felt like all of nature was working hard to comfort me.

I drove a little further, to where the road opens up and you can see the entire valley. The mist was thicker here, like a blanket over the hills. It was truly stunning, and I entered an emotional space I’ve never been in before. I was simultaneously heart-broken over what was happening and in a state of utter joy for the beauty before me. It was like the duality of the universe came together in that moment. I felt a short, quick pain in my heart, and then I had a sudden realization – as if my father were speaking directly to me. I knew that if I ever wanted to connect with him, all I had to do was watch the sunrise. My father had always loved the sunrise, and had come to remind me of that on his way out.

I burst into tears, knowing the absolute truth of what I was feeling, and knowing I’d just received my gift. Right then, my phone rang. It was my sister telling me my father had passed. Later, in looking at my phone records, I saw that my sister had called me at 5:24, the exact time of sunrise that morning.

A few days later, my mother shared something with me. My father had apparently placed one item from each of his children and grandchildren in his Bible – letters or drawings we’d given him. My item was a letter I’d sent my father in 1996, describing a dream I’d had of the two of us. In the dream, we’d been using orange ribbon to make a path in the woods for deer to cross. I’d told him in that letter that deer represented gentleness to me, and I’d thanked him for helping me find that quality within myself.

There’s no way my father could’ve known how meaningful that letter would be to me after his death. Still, he’d placed it there, and it had come to me. Another gift. I think there was also another message for me in that letter - that I could still see my father in my dreams. Before he passed, I’d asked him to come to me that way once in a while, and in the week since he’s left, he’s come to me twice: once to hug me, and once to tell me he was happy. Both times have been precious, and I’ve woken feeling like we’ve had a nice visit.

I know that in surrendering, I opened a channel for grace. That’s the thing with surrender. When we let go of control and release whatever agenda we’re holding, we make space in the magnetic field of the heart. That space is where relational magic takes place. With nothing in the way, we make the deepest of connections. Because we’re connected to everything, we experience synchronicity. That synchronicity allows for beauty and grace to flow to us, even at the most challenging of junctures. All the world responds to our pain with love. We make room for the people we love to speak to us.

Though I'm deeply saddened by my father’s passing, I’m also deeply grateful for this experience. If my surrender made it any easier for you to cross over Dad, I’m happy to have given you that gift.

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