I will never forget the last hours I spent with my father. We had already conversed about his life. We had already enjoyed the celebratory travels together. We had already passed the point of no return beyond which he might recover.
Instead, we were together in his darkened bedroom, mostly silent. Occasionally, I would help him up or fetch him some water. More often, however, he slept. Here and there I would sing and tap out a traditional song on a hand drum, reminding him of the meaning. In Anishinaabe I would tell him, “Here is the thunderbird pipe song… this one is a woman’s song.”
In our last exchange he told me “Ninibaa,” roughly, “I will sleep now” in Anishinaabe. At about 4:30 a.m., I turned in for the night. When I awoke four hours later, my father was gone.
When grieving, it’s tempting to focus on the negative. Indeed, it seems at some moments as though we are all alone, our pain incomprehensible to anyone else in the world. When more sober thoughts return, we recognize this as folly. Most of us will watch our parents pass on and then live through the challenging days afterwards. Yet through these dark clouds lies a silver lining: there is something profound and wonderful about spending time with someone in the final years, months and days of their lives.
When I learned my father’s illness had taken a turn for the worse last spring, I left a job with security behind. Content to work on a freelance basis, I resolved to do what I could to support him through his sickness, but mostly to spend as much time with him as I could. My mother and sisters made similar decisions, each making big changes to help out and spend their own time with him.
In the months that followed, my father and I laughed together, ate together and came as near to crying together as our macho personalities would allow. We spent hours conversing in and about the Anishinaabe language. We even developed an iPad app that leveraged my father’s encyclopedic knowledge of the tongue.
We made our annual family pilgrimage to South Dakota for a Sundance ceremony, witnessing the kindness of strangers who prayed for my dad’s well being. We travelled back to our home community in northwestern Ontario and rebuilt our old sweat lodge.
The victory lap came last October as my father, mother, sister and I witnessed the canonization of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, the 17-century Algonquin-Mohawk laywoman, at the Vatican. Here my dad witnessed a miracle of sorts that he had long sought: the church that condemned him as a pagan during his residential school days now embraced him and raised someone like him up to sainthood.
The lessons I learned during this time, from the language to the cultural teachings to the shining example of grace he displayed while embracing both Anishinaabe and Catholic alike, I will carry with me always. I hope by practising these things my father’s spirit might live on.
There was another sort of lesson I absorbed as the finality of eternity began to loom large. This lesson was about what really matters in life. The luxurious and unnecessary disappear as we are reduced to our most basic level of existence. First politics and ideology were discarded. Then money ceased to be relevant. In fact, money is so wildly unimportant in a dying person’a last hours that it is a small wonder we spend so much time worrying about it the rest of our lives. The divisions of race, culture and faith mattered little as well. My father reached out to those close to him, brown-skinned and white, Christian and traditionalist.
We may choose many labels for ourselves, but in the end, there is one to which we will all inevitably ascribe: mortal.
So what did matter? Water did, nearly to the end. Then he ceased to drink. Air mattered a bit longer than that, but then he ceased to breathe. Finally he exhausted the last finite resource we all have: time. That suggests that time is one of the things in life that matters the most. Indeed it does. Yet as our family sat beside my father as the life faded within him, there is one thing that was not extinguished — love. The love we felt for him and the love he felt for us, especially for my dear mother.
So yes, this time is precious. Too precious not to spend it with those we love.
Wab Kinew is the Director of Indigenous Inclusion at the University of Winnipeg.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 10, 2013 C3 in the column “Love and death: It’s all that’s left at the very end”