Death is coming, is your constant companion, is holding your hand right now. No one has more patience than death, but no one can be more greedy either. Or as tender. Or as cruel.
The way we live our lives is interesting. Intellectually we know the deal: We are born. We live. We die. But here’s what we do. We celebrate birth. We take Life for granted. We fear Death and shun it.
When a new baby arrives, joins our family it renews our hope in the world. We relish the gift of life knowing Nature is intact, operating according to a miraculous plan. Each year we celebrate the birth again. As I write this, for instance it is the birthday of my middle child, my second son, Oliver. On the day he was born I received him with my own hands, in our home, welcoming him to this world.
This morning he was up before the Sun, yearning to seize the day. He is fourteen. He had agreed, last night, to go for a sunrise bike ride along the cliffs above the ocean with my wife, Cecile. The view across Monterey Bay to the Santa Lucia Range is clear today with the water a slate grey, and bands of watermelon and papaya brightening the sky behind the shadowy purple ridge line. It is a fine morning to be up celebrating the gift of life with the dawning of a new day. And who better to share it with than the one who carried you and delivered you and nurtured you, who brought you across the mysterious threshold, risking her own life in the process.
It is thin and delicate membrane that separates the Before from Here, and Here from Hereafter. Mothers occupy an ethereal guard post, straddling the portal into our earthly world. I’ll bet most of them haven’t pondered the notion that the moment of their baby’s birth may be the closest they’ve ever been to death. It is a moment out of our control, beyond the confines of manners and propriety and a time when Death can take you. Usually it doesn’t. I can’t say how grateful I am that our lives in my family haven’t been touched that way. I say this with theperspective of one who has been there when the gates have come unhinged and didn’t open or close the way they are meant to.
In such moments, as a nurse, I am a person in the presence of strangers who one minute are filled with the expectation of their greatest joy and are the next moment gaping down the abysmal maw of dark eternity. It is hard not to feel out of place, like an intruder. So many thoughts and feelings slam against the shores of my being from inside and outside with a rapacious fury, yet I have to center myself and become a pillar of strength in that moment. Though I feel their loss intensely, I am no good to them unless I can insulate myself at that moment from the strength of my own emotions and provide a solid grounding presence. Sometimes I will just be with them. Sometimes people will need physical touch to keep them here in this place, however tumultuous or lonely or damned it may feel, they need to stay here, on this side of the membrane. Sometimes it is words, words that find their place and come from who knows where to keep a mother, or father from falling into a grief with no bottom. It doesn’t seem real. It is all wrong. But nothing is more real or final.
My first day of orientation on the job Death was already there when I got there, serving me notice, letting me know who’s the Boss. Two girls walking to school had been hit by a car. They were fifteen. They were in the crosswalk. The driver of the car had stopped at the intersesction, then proceeded making a turn toward the rising Sun, which for a brief moment blinded him. That was all it took. That brief moment became locked in a broken chronogram, which instead of passing without notice became etched into the memories of people who were there. One of the girls suffered a femur fracture and needed surgery, but the other had a head injury and was killed. I remember the injured girl screaming angrily, asking why she and her friend were being kept separated, why she couldn’t see her friend. Hers were just the first of the heartbroken, disbelieving chorus who came in waves, each joining and renewing the mournful keening that is still in my ears eighteen years later.
That day put a mark on me. It made me look at each day differently than I had before. Maybe most of the people who know me don’t know where my sudden dark and inappropriate “humor” comes from. Well, it comes from experiences like this. That girl screaming to see her dead friend. The wailing of her parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles as they came in and learned she was gone. The weight of helplessness and guilt for the destitute driver as the unthinkable reality of having killed an innocent girl on her way to school caught him and wouldn’t let go. Wouldn’t ever let go. He was there too, in another room devastated by what he had done. He was trying not to let the gravity of what had happened collapse his psyche in on itself, but being unable to do it. We were trying to help with drugs, something to calm and slow his mind down and create a protective buffer against the immediacy and permanence of the moment.
I can’t even write this without weeping. But I guess that is why I need to write it, to try to find a way of making peace with the terrible, unacceptable reality of being there, as a stranger in the presence of my fellow human beings as they are visited by Death.