Not many hours before my father died, he spoke to me about the life review that occurred weeks before, while he was being transported by ambulance to the hospital. As he was looking out the ambulance window, he knew he was about to die. “Lights out” is how he put it. In that moment, scenes from his entire life appeared. Like frames of a movie, he said. He told me he saw everything he had ever done.
He explained all of this to me as I sat beside him in his private room in the critical care unit. Propped up by pillows and morphine, wearing a flimsy hospital gown that bore no relation to style or dignity, my father slowly lifted his skeleton of a right arm. Just like that, he said, swiping the air from right to left showing me exactly how it happened.
The images from his life were in color and sharply in focus, he told me. Every moment was right there in front of him to see, hear and feel all over again. All the joy, the happiness, the sadness. All the good he ever did and all of his mistakes.
You’d think that it would take a long time to relive the experiences of a 69 year-old man, someone who had lived a rich, full life long before cancer mistook his body for sport. But no, my father told me, his life review happened in the way we’ve heard others talk about their near death experience. It took only seconds for him to see everything go by in a flash.
It was all in 3D. He said the scenes appeared as if they were “lit from behind” and that all of his mistakes stood out more than any of the good he ever did. They were highlighted so that there was no way he could miss seeing them.
As he spoke to me, he had to pause and cough, spit and wheeze and adjust the oxygen tube that was jammed up his nostrils. All to no avail, since the pneumonia was relentless in refilling his lungs. Like the other stories from the last days of his life coming out of his mouth in whispers on spit, this one too kept me silently waiting, collecting, and connecting the fragments.
He said, “One thing stood out more than any of the rest, more than any good I did. It was brighter than the rest somehow. It was the only mistake I knew I made that I regret.”
He spoke with humility as though in confession. “I didn’t tell the people I loved that I loved them. I didn’t tell them or show them enough. I saw what a terrible mistake that was, and in that moment of realization I knew I wanted the chance to fix it, to make it right before I died.”
I was stunned by all of this and I was totally choked up with emotion. Still, somehow miraculously, my curiosity — and maybe even my propensity for wanting to know more that had served me well in my journalism career — kicked in.
Without a moment’s hesitation, I slipped right in between his pause, and asked him why it was so difficult for him to express his emotions all his life. He told me he didn’t know why, but that he wished that he did. His life review showed him the pain it had caused. He knew it was wrong and he said he wanted the chance to fix it. So he hung on for dear life as they say, long enough for me to get from the newsroom in Denver to New York and his bedside, to hear the words face to face: “I love you, Giselle.”
The agony of his struggle to catch his breath to tell me everything and to say he was sorry was proof of his love. All of what he shared with me during those last hours changed both of us forever, because we knew we simultaneously healed at the most intimate emotional and spiritual levels. As we held each other’s hands in complete peace and quiet, it felt like we merged as one heart.
Lessons from my father
One of the most important and unique lessons I learned from my father began to take form at his bedside. He was showing me that there are so many moments throughout our lives when we are simply unaware of the effect — positive or negative — we are having on others. Through no willful intention, or malice, but rather only due to our ignorance.
To widen our spiritual perspective, he said, requires that we learn about and respect this fundamental principle: the law of invisible consequences. For it is operating at all times, whether we can actually see it in a precise moment of our life — what we call “in real time” — or get to see it later as a rewind, like he did during his life review.
On his deathbed, my father was blessing me with what he learned about this law so that I could then live my life “less ignorant” than he.
He has taught me how essential it is to do our best to become aware of the invisible footprints we create that have a negative impact, and also do what we can to increase the opportunities for a positive invisible footprint, and to forgive ourselves for the mistakes along the way. To be kind to ourselves, not beat ourselves up when we do see our mistake. To fix our mistakes as we go.
Before his life review, he wasn’t aware of the law of invisible consequences. No one had taught him. His religious education had primarily been focused on the opposite law: learning about right from wrong through sins that express that basic principle in visible forms. Much of that education emphasized the lessons of what not to do.
So, for example, lessons about dishonesty vs. honesty, in big lies or little white lies, and through all the degrees of sins ranging from venial to mortal that he had to memorize. They were taught to him like they are taught to many people, as the black-and-white map to a virtuous life.
It was through his life review he learned that the kinds of mistakes, missteps or sins that are obvious and seen by others are not the only kinds we are capable of making that have profound and lasting impact. There are also the gray ones, the ones that are so faint, or so dim of color and contrast they are virtually impossible to see. They are our invisible consequences. These also create the need for us to be forgiving of ourselves, as well as of others.
My father’s strength of spirit that enabled him to fix his singular regret and to walk the path of peacemaking to his very last breath is what underpins my developing wisdom. I’ve had nearly 23 years since then to practice the great gifts of wisdom and grow from the love he gave me. Teaching me the law of invisible consequences was without a doubt the most meaningful gift.
For this upcoming Father’s Day, I couldn’t think of a better way to honor his memory than to pass on his gift to you.