I just received a call from a friend of mine whose life has taken him thousands of miles from his family home in Alaska. Like me, he is an eldest son, and though we are a generation apart, we value our friendship. I am also close to his father who is my age and with whom I have developed a warm friendship despite our different life journeys and cultural traditions.
My young friend was calling to let me know that his father, while visiting him, had fallen ill and was now in the hospital with an uncertain prognosis. Knowing that I am of the same age, and that The Reaper is yanking at my leg as well, and knowing that his dad has had a much tougher life than I have, I realized, as did he, that this may the time when life has caught up with a good man, and that this may be my friend’s last chance to visit with his father in a meaningful way.
We talked for a while about our lives. He, still in the early days of parenthood and an exciting career, had much more to offer than I. And that’s the way it should be.
But the spectre of his father, my peer, lying in a hospital bed miles from his home, haunted me. If he is to die, is it better that he is there with his eldest son and grandchildren, or would it be a better passing if he was back in his home on the Alaskan coast thousands of miles away? In the end, It is not really a question worth pondering, because we have no say over the answer. But it rose up inside of me, and I felt called to offer my thoughts.
Knowing both men, knowing their relationship, and being both a father and a son, I ended up telling my friend what I would want to happen if I were in his father’s situation and what I would hope my son would do if he were confronted with a similar circumstance. Here, slightly edited, is what I said.
You are your dad’s eldest son. That means something. Your dad is a deep thinker who measures his words and thoughts. I think while you have him there, you should go to him and ask him what he wants you to know. Tell him you want him to think about it and you’ll come back the next day to hear what he wants to say.
Maybe he’ll be around for years, but maybe this is the last time you’ll have good time with him. You need to know more than his wishes about how he wants to pass; you need to know what his life has taught him that he wants to pass on to you.
Keep in mind that as a man and your father, in some way he knows you better than anyone else on earth. He’s alive in you and you need to carry the best of him and his ancestors forward. It’s our burden and gift as eldest sons.
My friend took the words to heart. I knew he would; he is a man with a deep spiritual grounding and a willingness to face life’s difficult issues head on.
I hope my counsel ends up serving those two good friends of mine well, and I hope I am not betraying a trust by passing this story on. But there are moments in life that are universal, and it is sometimes good to share our thoughts on how to meet them. Because difficult though they may be, they are coming to us all.