I believe there is a tangible essence between life and death. I don’t know what you call it. The soul? The spirit? That almost captures the meaning, the feeling, but not quite. Those words stir up so many preconceived images of religion or the “supernatural”. I’m talking of a pure essence that escapes from the concrete body in the moment between life and death.
I believe I literally saw it in the moment my father died, as I held one hand, and Mom held the other in the dimly lit hospital room. I watched it escape from his broken body with a last breath. Breathing, which was so painful and tedious for him these last few years, was so effortless for me. His lungs filled with fluid, the heaviness, and the emphysema, which made him weak. Made his reluctant body use other muscles to expand his rib cage. Made him wince. It was the first time I saw him cry out in pain. And there was nothing I could do to help the man who was my Daddy, who had been my quiet strength, showing his love by fixing things, tinkering with broken toys, building me an end table out of the wood from a packing crate for my first apartment. Making a toddler’s chair shaped like an elephant for my daughter. Scolding me not to hang so many darn keys off my key chain, because that is how he ruined the starter on his car.
That moment of death has always been a scary idea for me. I suppose because I’m so unsure of what it means. What happens to us? What is it that makes one moment living and another not? I’ve heard religion celebrate the spirit, heaven and the afterlife, and science boil things down to neurotransmitters and chemical fluctuations in the brain.
I must stand somewhere between science and religion.
Hushed voices in the corridor, a nurse comes to give Dad something more to ease the pain, and my brother-in-law brings a boom box and cd. Chopin, I think. The music and the medicine steady Dad’s breathing, shallow, but without the stabbing pain. Mom knows now that he is holding on only for her, to please her, because she is not ready to let go of this love she has shared for more than 52 years.
She whispers in his ear that it is okay for him to go and we both tell him we love him. Ten minutes or maybe a few more pass, and I see the beauty of the moment of death, and the moment is no longer scary. The slipping away on a breath, the escape of life, is leaving behind the broken body, an empty shell on the beach. The body had only been sheltering the essence of my father in life. The essence, now freed, finds new form in our memories of Dad and in love.
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