there’s not a thing to attend to that matters as much
as being present to the one who is leaving.
~ cj 2014.03.26
For a moment, I thought this was all I had to say on the matter. And it is, of course, perfectly fine to stop reading right here. But I couldn’t stop here, because when I thought I was done, it turns out I’d only just started.
You see, when I thought I was done, it suddenly became very important to me that you and anyone else who reads this knows: It was not by accident that I used “being present for” in the first part, and “being present to” in the second.
Perhaps it seems trivial. The wording is quite similar; and it would be easy to interchange them:
‘being present for’
‘being present to’
…but they are quite different in my heart.
To me, ‘being present for’ is what one does for another. When a loved one is dying, and leaving us behind, there seems no end to what needs attending. We care, we show up. And even though we may be completely lost inside, because they are leaving, we make ourselves extremely busy being present for them. It doesn’t feel like there is much else we can do.
But when I think of ‘being present to’ someone who is dying, I imagine needs ceasing to exist, or at least my notice of them. All that attending busy-ness loses its importance. I picture becoming an empty vessel with a wide open space inside, where someone I care about feels welcome and heard. Being present to them is honoring all that they’ve been, and all that they are in that moment, as they are doing the hard work of leaving. It feels like a deep understanding in me that, even when they are gone, they will always be a part of me and everyone they’ve touched. I want to allow myself to experience the essence of them, even when I am afraid, or I’m not sure I can stand the pain of it.
I meant to end this piece after I explained my different meanings for those two phrases. But then, for fun, I looked up the etymology of the word “present”. Perhaps it is just late, far past any reasonable bedtime, but each variation, and how they could all mix together, felt profoundly beautiful and rich in symbolism; perfect for writing about right here, while I’m writing about being present.
So I continued….
A ‘present’ can be a noun, an object, a ‘gift’. Pronounced another way, it is the act of giving something to another.
I smiled when I thought “I can present a present.”
And I can present myself to someone to be present for them.
Or I can give them the gift, the present, of being present to them.
And then I realized, I wasn’t done with what was on my mind, so I tried being present to this moment of writing. And I gave in to where my mind wanted to go…back to the memory of the night I learned how to be truly present to another. Even though I tried not be present to it, that’s really what this piece wants to be about.
So here it is…here is the heart of it.
When my dad was dying, at first I was very busy being present for him. I wanted to fix this; I wanted to help like I had so many other times. At least I could make him comfortable by attending to his needs. I felt like doing something was what I had to offer, and I did as much as I could. But very quickly, I understood, I wasn’t going to be able to fix this. He was really leaving me. Suddenly all this attending didn’t really matter that much. I felt empty. And lost.
Later, in the dark of that night, heart-sick, sitting in the chair next to him, watching him breathe, I tried something different, because there wasn’t anything to do for him. I tried to put myself in his place. What was it like to be in his bed, in his wasted, broken body, having to do this hard work of leaving? How would he find the strength? What was he feeling, what was he thinking? Was he aware, and was he afraid?
I crawled into bed with him to get close, because I wouldn’t have many more chances to be near him. And then I saw his eyes were open!
Hi Dad, I love you.
I love you, too, he said.
Am I your favorite daughter?
I’ve asked this question for years. He’d usually say some version of “You’re my only daughter.” So I’d press him. But am I your FAVORITE daughter? Sometimes the answer was “Sometimes”. Eventually I could get him to at least say “Of course, don’t be ridiculous.” Occasionally, he’d give in and say “Sure”, like he did when I was a little kid, and he wanted me to stop bothering him.
But this time, for the first and only time ever, he quietly answered
I made sure I was looking straight into his eyes when I was talking to him, even though he was looking at the ceiling.
Once I felt able to hold back my tears, I continued.
I am sorry this is happening to you. I wish I could fix this, Dad. Is there anything I can do for you?
He was quiet for a long time…so long that I leaned way in his face to make sure he was still awake. And breathing.
No, he finally said.
He went quiet again, and I thought he was done talking.
But then he said
You’re here, and that’s enough.
He was right. I WAS there; I was completely present to him. And I understood in that moment, being present to him was exactly enough.
I stayed there, looking in his eyes. I thought about all that he’d hoped his life would be. And I thought about all he’d been through…growing up in the depression, going to war, his serious illnesses, his broken back, how he’d beaten cancer…twice. I thought about all that he’d sacrificed for me and my brothers, the demons he’d fought, the weaknesses he hated in himself. I thought about his disappointments, his fears, the forever heartbreak of losing his wife so young. I thought about what a smart man he was, what a savant he was with words, how meticulous and fastidious he was, how kind he was to everyone who took care of him. I thought about all the things he liked, camping, fishing, being with his brothers, hearing from mine. All that he was flooded into me, and I understood him. I felt the heart, the essence of him. And I truly, finally, let go of everything I thought I needed…closure, his understanding, answers, apologies. All of it.
I had no idea how long we’d been looking at each other like that. He’d been unreachable in the past day or so, even with his eyes open. But I spoke again, hoping he’d at least hear me.
Thank you, Dad. Thank you so much for everything.
A long pause.
Awhile later, when part of me hoped he was now sleeping, I said
I’ll never forget you.
You’d better not, came the reply.
I laughed a little, and I kissed his forehead.
I’m tired, can I sleep here with you for a little while?
Such a long pause this time.
In that moment, I realized he was present to me as well.
For the rest of the time he was leaving, I tried to be as present to him as I could. I absorbed everything I could about him, I held his hand and quietly looked in his eyes as often as I could. I tried to make sure he knew I was completely there as far as I could go on his journey with him.
Like I’ve said before in other things I’ve written, he was holding my hand so tight that last night, it hurt. And when I got up to get his meds (be present for him, attend to him), I let go of his hand. And that’s when he left me, and living without him here began.
I am so grateful that I slowed down and really talked to him, held his hand, looked in his eyes, tried to be present to him. His gift of accepting that from me, the memory of those last days with him, is still a part of me, even though he’s gone.
As I finish this up, I finally see what I was meant to see from writing this piece. My Dad wasn’t the only one who got a present when I was present to him. I did.
I got the rich gift of those last days, and I got the gift of knowing how to be present to another.
It isn’t always easy, when it seems there is much to be ‘present for’, much to attend to, to every day. But now, because of the gift of that time, I remember more than I did before, that there is nothing to attend to that matters as much as being present to those who are a part of me, while they are living.
Being present to another is honoring all that they’ve been, and all that they are in that moment, as they do the hard work of living. I want to allow myself to experience the essence of them, even though sometimes I am afraid, or it is painful. Those who are close to me have touched me deeply, and they will always be a part of me. The gift I want to give them in return is to be an empty vessel with a wide open space inside where they feel welcome and heard by me…I want to be present to them.
And, although I have more I want to write about the gifts of “being present to”, ’tis enough for now, because I have other things to which I must attend. 🙂
~ cj 2014.03.27
P.S. Here’s the etymology I found for “present”
c.1300, “existing at the time,” from Old French present “evident, at hand, within reach;” as a noun, “the present time” (11c., Modern French présent) and directly from Latin praesentem (nominative praesens) “present, at hand, in sight; immediate; prompt, instant; contemporary,” from present participle of præesse “be before (someone or something), be at hand,” from prae- “before” (see pre-) + esse “to be” (see essence). Meaning “being there” is from mid-14c. in English. As a grammatical tense, recorded from late 14c.
present (v.) Look up present at Dictionary.com
c.1300, “introduce (someone or something) formally or ceremonially;” also “make a formal presentation of; give as a gift or award; bestow,” from Old French presenter (11c., Modern French présenter) and directly from Latin praesentare “to place before, show, exhibit,” from stem of praesens (see present (adj.)). From late 14c. as “exhibit (something), offer for inspection, display;” also, in law, “make a formal complaint or charge of wrongdoing.” From c.1400 as”represent, portray.” Related: Presented; presenting.
present (n.1) Look up present at Dictionary.com
“this point in time” (opposed to past and future), c.1300, “the present time,” also “act or fact of being present; portion of space around someone,” from Old French present (n.) from Latin praesens “being there” (see present (adj.)). In old legalese, these presents means “these documents.”
present (n.2) Look up present at Dictionary.com
c.1200, “thing offered, what is offered or given as a gift,” from Old French present and Medieval Latin presentia, from phrases such as French en present “(to offer) in the presence of,” mettre en present “place before, give,” from Late Latin inpraesent “face to face,” from Latin in re praesenti “in the situation in question,” from praesens “being there” (see present (adj.)), on the notion of “bringing something into someone’s presence.”