There is a scene during the series finale of the West Wing that really moves me. The new president is about to take office and the old administration is packing up. Just prior to meeting with the incoming president, the outgoing president (played by Martin Sheen) strolled through the White House taking a look at the place, appreciating where he had been, the difference he had made, the soaking up the gravitas of the building and thanking the staff. Then in the final moments of his presidency he and the first lady (Stockard Channing) walk into the east room, take a breath and take it all in, one more time.
Are we able to do that with life or is that just a Hollywood ending? Do we take a look around, appreciating the spaces we filled, the air we breathed and the people we touched? Or, do we fade off leaving the impact we made in the world to be felt by those that we left behind. I’d like to think that we do the former, but I am afraid it mostly doesn’t happen the way Hollywood writes the script.
More often than not, death comes suddenly, and we don’t have the time to rewind the movie to reflect or to comment on the ride. It’s just over. Other times death comes to us as a long march, but as this scene from “Fletch” reminds us that even then, when it happens, we neither have the time nor the ability to reflect, because to quote another scene from the same movie, “when it comes, it comes.”
Dr. Dolan: You know, it’s a shame about Ed.
Fletch: Oh, it was. Yeah, it was really a shame. To go so suddenly like that.
Dr. Dolan: He was dying for years.
Fletch: Sure, but… the end was very… very sudden.
Dr. Dolan: He was in intensive care for eight weeks.
Fletch: Yeah, but I mean the very end, when he died. That was extremely sudden.
Moreover, most people are not equipped for the long goodbye. They weren’t sentimental in life and that emotional connection doesn’t suddenly appear near life’s end. It is often the case, that people are who they are in each moment that they live. Who they are is even more apparent in these difficult, tough to define moments. Now with a global pandemic (I think that might be redundant. Doesn’t “pandemic” imply “global?!) it is even harder for meaningful, soulful goodbyes.
My father was not a “take a lap around and see where I’ve been” guy. He was always looking forward. He never believed the end was the end. He was calling clients from the ICU and telling friends that “he would be up and around in a few weeks.” Because of Covid, his and the fear of others’ potentially with it, my last few months with him were masked. My last hug with him after telling him that his granddaughters were really special women, that thousands loved him and that when he left (whenever that might be) he would leave behind a meaningful legacy, was masked.
That was his only looking around at the landscape, that moment. He didn’t want to go there. Not only was it not in his nature, but he was tired. Tired of the effort required to do anything that comes natural to all of us, tired of tubes, tired of medication, tired of how tired it was all making my mother and yes, tired of the masks. He was a person that changed the energy of a room when he walked in. You can’t change the energy if you can’t walk and you certainly can’t do it if you can’t see people’s faces.
In 1989, Kareem Abdul Jabbar went on a long goodbye tour. In each city the Lakers visited, he was festooned with gifts, stories and highlight reels. It all culminated with a celebration in Los Angeles with the honoree sitting in a rocking chair befitting a seven-foot legend. It is now 32 years later. Will he get a tour like that for the back half of his life? Will he produce the tour in his head? Will he reflect on the over three decades without basketball or will it just be over with no fanfare?
I am mad that my dad didn’t take a stroll around – whether that was because he didn’t want to, he wasn’t physically capable or because Covid prevented it. I am mad that the guy who always aspired to be one in a million, became one of five hundred thousand… deaths from this still raging fire of a virus. I am mad that there were so many unmasked people in the Indiana truck stop I went to get caffeinated after learning of his passing that when I finally made it to my parents house, I couldn’t even hug my recently widowed mother.
I am not an angry person by nature and so my emotion will ultimately subside. Maybe, though, the lesson here is to breathe it all in while it is happening. That way, when the end comes, we have already taken that stroll and that stroll will last a lifetime.