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27 October 2010

My Father's Death

Of all the deaths I've experienced my father's was the most significant. He died on March 31, 1993. Though it was almost nineteen years ago, that night is forever etched in my mind.

I was teaching a night class at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, New Jersey. I had a strange feeling that day that I should cancel the class and stay home for a change. I didn't, of course, as I had no rational reason for canceling the class. I remember dad waving goodbye to me as I drove to work that afternoon. I can still see him standing at the end of our driveway, slowly waving to me. How could I have known that would be the last time I'd see my father conscious and standing on his own two feet? Upon arriving home that night, I found out my father had collapsed while watching TV. He was at the local hospital. From the looks on the faces of my neighbors keeping some sort of vigil, I knew this was bad.

When I got to the hospital, I knew right away he was finished. He wasn't conscious and in the ICU. My mom was there, and he was basically in a coma. He held on to life long enough for my brother to arrive in New Jersey from Nashville the next afternoon, and while we three were at his bedside, we eventually told the ICU staff to stop resuscitating him as his heart kept stopping. Through his body's struggle to let go, I felt as if he were somehow aware of us speaking to him by his bedside and trying to respond, but the doctors said his movements and facial expressions were involuntary.
There was a radio in his room. I remember the song that played as the life-sustaining machines were turned off and we sat there quietly by his body. The song was Sleepwalk by Santo and Johnny, a dreamy 1950s instrumental guitar classic.
I remember his skin in the florescent light above his bed. It was so white and smooth, almost free of any wrinkles. I thought to myself, this isn't right; he hasn't even outlived his skin in his sixty-nine years on this earth. I remember my mother touching his feet and then saying goodbye. And that was it. Michael John Bonagura, a man who was always completely larger than life, was gone in less than 24 hours.

After the funeral, my brother told me he was surprised at how I was able to "keep it together." I seemed to be the rock of the family. But he wasn't there the first night when I cried alone for hours and hours and let most of the immediate pain pass through me like heat dispersed by a summer thunderstorm. Additionally, I had been preparing myself for this day, practicing death as the Buddhists would say. Not long before this fateful day, I saw my father sleeping one afternoon. He looked peaceful yet so weak as if he were ready at any moment to let go of this life. His facial expression and the light rising and falling of his chest seemed to say to me that his struggles with various chronic illnesses had been enough for one lifetime. For some strange reason, in that moment I was OK with that insight. I also recall years earlier coming home from college during a break back when I was an undergrad. As he met me at Newark Airport, I noticed how old he looked. You know how when you see someone every day, you don't notice the gradual changes? Well, I thought as if twenty years had been sucked right out of him in the few months since I last saw him. In that moment was my probably first awareness of his mortality. I almost couldn't take it. He looked so tired and drawn and pale in the dim light of the baggage claim. I quickly altered the thought and began a conversation with him to distract me from that realization.

In his later years I had become his personal health advocate and confidant since I moved back home after graduate school, going with him to all the doctor's appointments and even checking him out of the hospital at his insistence only a day after having a heart attack. Over the last five years of his life, I had witnessed his service-connected disabilities and their chronic effects take their toll on his vitality and resilience: He had an irregular heartbeat, atrial fibrillation, as well as a kind of blood disease in which his bone marrow produced too many platelets, a dangerous combination. He also still suffered from post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, terms that didn't exist back in the 1940s when he went to war. As indicated, he was also a lousy patient, wanting little or nothing at all to do with doctors, hospitals, and most importantly drugs with serious side-effects, even though they might have extended his life many years. His whole mental outlook was pretty typical of an old marine, independent and unbreakable, at least as far as the outside world was concerned.
In his youth and even into middle age my dad was a rather imposing figure—1940s Hollywood good looks coupled with the aura and intensity of an old-breed combat Marine. He had always been a terrific athlete, playing semi-professional football with the Newark Bears on Sundays after playing for his high school team on Saturdays. My brother and sister had moved away years ago, and they had known him mostly in his fierce prime. I, however, being born much later got close to a different person. The Guadalcanal Marine Raider and one-time Broadway actor were more like versions of himself from past lives, captured now only in photographs, newspapers, and stories he’d tell. He had softened. He liked to stay home and cook for my mom who was still working after he had retired. I even saw a sometimes tortured and vulnerable man seeking to make peace with all he'd done in his life, especially World War II. Definitely not someone invulnerable or God-like.
I could see the war often coming back to his consciousness in his later years as his body began rapidly to decline. I'm pretty sure as a Raider he had very likely looked his enemy in the eye, and war to him had been an up-close and personal experience. I knew what it meant that dad came home from the Pacific and the aforementioned enemy whom dad looked in the eye did not. He knew intimately the hatred that men needed to survive in such situations. Letting go off all the toxic emotions that ironically allowed him to survive WWII (but would later destroy his health) would be the great struggle of the rest of his life, even though the majority of his life was spent far removed from the military, raising his family, and (in addition to his brief acting career) coaching and teaching high school kids. He had captivated quite a following in his thirty plus years in education, and my father reveled in those good feelings and happiness shared with thousands and thousands of teenagers. His students kept in contact with him for decades afterward, and everywhere he went he couldn't help but run into at least one smiling face thanking him for being the best teacher he or she ever had!

Dad had a pretty good life. He struggled with money, working summer jobs like most teachers, but with the help and wisdom of my mom, put three kids through college and paid off a mortgage. Despite the shadows of war, he lived a happy, suburban existence of beaches and barbecues, baseball and beer, church on Sunday, and family dinners. His life lacked pretension and radiated integrity and purpose, and he laughed a lot. He died with no financial debt, something my generation can't imagine.

I've mostly dealt with his death by continuing our relationship. In fact I feel it's gotten much stronger in passing years. He once appeared to me in a dream a few days after he died. His smiling face was glowing, and he told me he was all right and more importantly I'd be alright. Certainly one of the most powerful dreams in my life, one from which I've never looked back on without reassurance. I've come to see the veil between life and death as illusory at best, and several times a day, every day, I feel his presence, almost as if he were still communicating with me or somehow checking in to remind me to let go of my fears. Life is continuous, ever-flowing and everlasting, not as our egos, fears and illusions tell us--fragmented and finite.

The one lasting message my father left indelible in my heart is that sometimes very bad things happen, but the meaning of life is that the current generation doesn't pass on those bad things to those younger as so many have done throughout the ages. The cycle of suffering must end with you: Take the poison, "carry your cross," as he would often say, and suffer with dignity and courage, but return only love. Channel grace, as if directly from heaven, to everyone you meet. If you acquire power in this life, use it solely to help others, for that's the only reason God ever elevates any one man over another, and always the wisdom of his favorite expression, "this too shall pass."


  1. You are a remarkable man. Having such insight to a world most do not see or are afraid to experience. You are in search of something so big and are certainly on an amazing journey as I feel it is in your hands already. With all the accomplishments your father had in his life, it is you he was learning from for much longer than just the end. He is his son's father!!

  2. There is a moment in the movie Steel Magnolias, at the very end, where Sally Field, playing the mother to Julia Roberts' character, a deceased Shelby, says this: "I was there when that
    beautiful creature drifted into my life.. and I was there when she drifted out of
    it. It was the most precious moment of my life..."

    Now, I realize you do not remember drifting into your father's life, but you were blessed (as crazy as it sounds) as he drifted out of yours. As heartbreaking as it was for you, I envy it. It was a blessing I missed along the way, as I lived in Florida when my father passed away.

    Like you, I continue my relationship with my father, even after he's gone. I write him and talk to him as if he still lingers, and some days, I definitely believe he is here. Other days, he feels so far away. I miss him, and I wonder if I'd had the chance to say goodbye, would I still "talk" to him like I do...but I will never know for sure...and I don't want to. I like what I have of him, and I'll take what I can get.

    I admire the hell out of you. I do. I admire your courage in saying goodbye. I admire your openness regarding his passing. I take comfort in knowing I'm not the only child in the world that still holds onto their parent, even though it makes me sad at the same time.

    Thank you for writing this. I appreciate it. Even though it struck a somber note in me, it made me smile, because I could sense your father around you as you wrote it. You are blessed, indeed.


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