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Directing the final scene

WHEN they pulled out the pump that was keeping my father's heart going, his hands shot up in the air, and he shouted: "Wonderful!" My brother Jeff and I knew why.

He had been waiting to die for a year, having tried to take his life with far too few pills to do the job. It left him, at 81, doomed to a life sentence with a failing heart that wouldn't let him be the fun-loving, bridge-playing, romantic crooner we had known.

He was happy to be leaving us and we, in turn, were happy to see him go. We'd been mourning him for a year as he faltered and despaired.

The devout already have it down, of course, whether the last rites are Catholic, Jewish or Buddhist. But those of us who respect the idea of the spiritual without adhering to a spiritual life are left to find our own ways. Never mind that often the dying don't understand or care.

He had told us that he wanted to be gone by Father's Day. It looked as if he'd be getting his way. The hours ticked by, his breath slowed in increments so tiny it might have been the lengthening of the daylight over the course of winter to summer. Relatives came to visit in his private hospital room. Then as more hours passed and his breath continued to slow, it was just me and Jeff at his side.

Dad had done the same thing with us for our mother just four years before. She had been ill for 10 years and had no quality of life left. But we had to wonder if she was fighting because she wasn't ready to go. We lit Sabbath candles, we sang to her, we did everything we could to make her final exit a good one.

But it wasn't, and when the last breath went out of her, her face froze in anguish. A nurse had to come in to close her desperate, open eyes.

Our father seemed so blissful in comparison, content to drift out to the abyss. At some point my brother asked if he wanted us to sing to him, as we had done for our mother, and as we had done as a family all our lives, using songs when we had no words for conversation.

He shook his head and whispered: "No, no music." But Jeff said: "Let's just do one song." I harmonised with him to You Are My Sunshine, as I had for so many summers with our parents in the car or backyard. I felt resentful but said nothing.

More time passed. We sat, we waited as members of the hospital staff in white moved with such gentleness that they could have been clouds. Across the bed, my brother was fumbling with a plastic bag.

"Look Dad, strawberries," he said. "Want one?" I shook my head. I told him to let Dad be. "But he loved his backyard patch so much," he said.

He held a perfect strawberry to our father's lips. Mine were pressed together in tense censure. But my father leaned forward, took it into his mouth, chewed it slowly and swallowed with a gulp. Then a trace of a smile crossed his face.

A little while later, Jeff and I went out for coffee. I was seething. It seemed he was hijacking someone's end of life with rituals of his own.

"I just wanted him to have a last sensory reminder of a taste he loved," Jeff said.

I shouldn't have been so annoyed. It seems like everyone wants to impose something on the endings of loved ones these days. They try to have cosmic conversations on deathbeds. They create moments of poetic whimsy at funerals and memorials. For a generation obsessed with meaning, it's too great an opportunity to let pass without marking the milestone.

The devout already have it down, of course, whether the last rites are Catholic, Jewish or Buddhist. But those of us who respect the idea of the spiritual without adhering to a spiritual life are left to find our own ways.

Never mind that often the dying don't understand or care. That doesn't stop us from doing what we feel is the right way to mark the moment of sacred passing.

"So you're saying," I asked Jeff in a shrill and accusatory tone as we walked back to Dad's hospital room, "that I should have something for you to eat on your deathbed?" It took just a second for him to reply. "Butterscotch ice cream," he said.

When we were back at the bedside, a young rabbi stuck his head in to say hello. Dad, who seemed to have lost his faith after watching his wife of 50 years languish and suffer, opened his eyes. "No," he sighed. "No rabbi." The rabbi lowered his head and backed away. But Jeff pursued him and brought him into the room.

"What are you doing?" I whispered.

"Let's let him talk to him," he said. "What's the harm?" I was about to get up and storm out when the rabbi leaned close into my father's ear.

"There's a spot of light, Mr Morris, when we're born, and it's a little bit of God," he told him. "It grows as you become a good son, neighbour, husband, parent and friend, and it grows more each time you do a good deed, each time you listen with an open heart."

My father nodded. The white room had become a kind of tent of spiritual revival.

"I want you to imagine your whole life now, Mr Morris," the rabbi said as he took his hand. "And for each time you did something good, imagine it as a little glow you left behind that lights a dark road stretching back in time. It's a long, long road of lights now, isn't it?" My father nodded again. Then he smiled.

Through my tears I could see his spots of light, shining for all his acts of kindness - taking in strangers for dinner, sending postcards to lonely neighbours, doing free legal work, handing out old tennis rackets and sneakers to children in municipal parks, showing respect for anyone he met, telling me over and over how proud of me he was.

He wasn't perfect, and he wasn't the most responsible husband or father. But he did the best he could. His trail of lights was glowing pearly as it receded into the dark. When the rabbi got up to go, Dad startled us by clearing his throat.

"That was beautiful, Rabbi," he said.

I had to admit that it was.

His last breath came not long after that. Even then, I felt a pang of resentment over how my brother had imposed his own wishes on a dying man. But I realised something else: I didn't have to feel that way.

He loved our parents and took care of them so well for his whole adult life. And death is as much for the living as for the dying. We are all left to do the best we can with it, embracing it and making it our own. All of us, the best we can.

We left the hospital not long after that and stepped out into the dazzling brightness of a late June afternoon, brothers, but no longer sons.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2015, with the headline 'Directing the final scene'. Print Edition | Subscribe