You know those conversations with people who for some reason or another, a sentence sticks in your head….for a very long time? I was once telling an acquaintance, Jim, about my desire to watch a birth. The miracle of the space changing from one second to the next held me in awe. In one moment there are two people breathing in a room and in the next there are three. It would be a gift for me to be present in this miracle without being the one in all of the pain. He paused for just a second and said, “Yes, I agree. It’s also a miracle to be there when someone is dying. And in that instance, it’s a gift for the other person instead.”
Urgh. That was tough to hear. Three grandparents dying in a 15 month span when I was a teenager did a number on me. Death, despite my belief in Heaven, became fear number one for me for a long time. So while, I totally appreciated what he said, I questioned how long it would be before I could even have the mental ability give a gift of that nature.
I did not have to wait long to find out. Last year I was called to come say goodbye to the grandmother that I did not grow up with, but who I had shared time, birthdays, and holidays with for the last 17 years. That is the same amount of years I had spent with the grandparents of my childhood….ironic, isn’t it? When I arrived at her tiny apartment, everyone scattered about picking up other family members and getting prepared for a possible night long bedside vigil. For an hour or so my brother and I talked to her about her favorite things and I read to her from her bible. As my step-mom Johanna, and Uncle Jack gathered back around her bed to check in, she moaned aloud. Johanna gave her a dropper of medicine and wiped her head with a cool cloth. She settled and became quiet. I suddenly felt a wave of an indescribable feeling come over me. Cold and nauseous feeling, I excused myself to the restroom. When I returned, we realized that Grandmother had slipped away. I was amazed that my body and subconsciousness knew the happenings in room before my mind did. In one moment, there were five breathing and then there were four.
In Broken Open, Lesser writes that like being a midwife, being with those dying is a gift. “Each time I have witnessed a death, I have been enriched beyond measure – deepened in my capacity to confront my own death and inspired to live with more immediacy and passion.” I understand this now. Although I have not spoken much about this experience since last April but it did indeed profoundly change me. Jim was right in that not being alone when passing is a gift of love to the person dying. I hope she felt the comfort and love. It’s a gift that we all pray to have when the time comes. But it also was a gift to me. A fear faced, a relationship consolidated and a wake up reminder that our time is limited. And, so the journey for me began, so to speak. Thank you, dear Juanita, for your hand in my awakening. I hope the gardens are lush and peaceful where your soul rests today.
“We do not know where death awaits us:
so let us wait for it everywhere.
To practice death is to practice freedom.
A man who has learned how to die
has unlearned how to be a slave.
-Michel De Montaigne