My father-in-law was a brilliant scientist who devoted his life to microbiology – the science of examining the smallest forms of life.
And so was it no surprise that even in retirement “Dad” continued that work. He began a close examination of his own life, in minute detail.
This was not an easy task for someone living with dementia. But in his moments of clarity, he intentionally placed his own life under the microscope.
I first began writing about his self-exploration on Huffington Post two and half years ago in the post: “A Life Examined and Worth Sharing”
In that post, I noted that Dad didn’t want to waste the quickly diminishing storage space of his memory.
So whenever his brain flickered alive, he would communicate a few bits and bytes of information. But only those that he thought were most important.
It was certainly not Nobel Prize winning philosophy, but instead they were hard-won lessons on living from a man who had come to understand that the little things count in life.
“How is work?” he would ask repeatedly.
“What is it that you do again? Never mind, don’t tell me. I’ll just forget it. But YOU, you remember, do what you love because life is too short!”
The first few times I would nod and smile. But it soon became clear that he wasn’t just repeating himself. He was repeating himself for emphasis.
To my kids, his message was consistent:
“Do you like your teacher? What grade are you in? Tell me, but don’t expect me to remember it. Look, school is so important, I tell you. Look at me, I could have been a loser. But a good education can make all the difference in your life.”
And it didn’t matter who he met, he had the same message about good health.
“Squeeze that hand. Feel that? Exercise I tell you, exercise! Oy, my mind may be going, but feel that grip, will ya!”
I suppose the scientist in him saw his life as the ultimate experiment. He had examined, questioned and tested ways of living and come out with lessons about hard work, resiliency, and responsibility. So he was determined to pass on the most important discoveries of his life while he could.
He couldn’t remember our names or eventually even his relationship to us, but he was certain that we were important in his life and so adamant that we listen to him.
My husband Todd captured one of these moments on video a few years ago.
Not too long after this video was taken, Dad had to move into an assisted-living facility. He spent more of his time in a hazy state between awake and asleep.
It was then that we would learn more about the “failed” experiments of his life.
It would have been easier for him with limited memory and time left, just to stop questioning and examining. But even diminished, he started to ask some tough questions of himself.
They were the kind of questions that only the courageous ask at the close of our lives - whether they’ve been loved, whether they’ve made a difference and whether they’ve been forgiven for their mistakes.
In an updated post about Dad (A Life Reexamined and Worth Living) I wrote about my realization that although he could not remember the beginning or middle of his life story, he was trying to make sense of the ending.
“Was I a good father?”
Obviously, there were reasons he felt compelled to ask this over and over again. But as his son-in-law, I could only reassure him by telling him that he was a better father to me than my own absent father.
Not satisfied, he persisted.
“But did I ever do anything to hurt you? You would tell me, right?
I soon realized that only answer that really mattered at this point in his life, was this: “I love you, Dad” That seemed to ease his fears.
In the last year, the questions stopped. He rarely spoke. The old scientist had said all that he could say about life.
Still, in his final hours, he was able to respond and in ways that reaffirmed so much about his life.
My husband decided to play some of his favorite music. Dad couldn’t speak, but suddenly his eyebrows danced with delight.
That would have been enough for his family, but still later, he summoned that famous iron grip of his to squeeze his son’s hand. And barely able to move, he found the strength to return a parting kiss from his wife.
Without conscious thought or words, it was clear these weren’t intentional actions, they were instinctive. These were muscle memories. His body reflexively responded to stimuli that was familiar to him - a kiss, a tender touch, the sweet sounds of music. These were small things that had become important to him.
For me, they were the final evidence I needed in my own examination of his life.
My discovery? That sometimes the smallest things are indeed proof of a life well lived.
Richard Leavitt 1930-2016