Last night I watched a person take their last breath. I hope you get to do that someday. It's as powerful as anything you'll ever see happening in this life, much, of course, like seeing or experiencing the birth of a baby. There is some struggle, profound physical transformation and then the thing is over. In the case of childbirth, one then has a screaming baby and there's a lot of chaos and relief, tears of joy, and a fair measure of disbelief, that one human has produced another. With death it's quiet. One draws a final breath, and then...keeps it; there is no exhale, as if one will need all that air to propel them to wherever they are going from here. As if one is taking a small souvenir from Earth to whatever mysterious place they are headed next.
As a hospice volunteer and in the hospital, where I have served as a chaplain, I have spent many hours in the company of death. I have seen death from pretty much every imaginable angle, and I have watched people respond to the dying in every conceivable manner. It is an odd thing to enter into a person's life right at the time when they are exiting this world, but it is an enormous, a tremendous gift. It changes the very molecules of your DNA.
When I'm with someone who is passing out of our world, I sing to them, I tell them they're not alone on the journey, I tell them how beautiful they are and I thank them for having shared their beauty with this world. And I do other things that one wouldn't dream of doing within minutes of meeting someone new: I hold their hand, I rub their forehead, I place my hand on the top of their head and sometimes I roll back the covers and massage their feet. No matter how deep into the process the dying person seems to be, they always respond to touch. Think about that. Last night I held the dying person's hand and ran my fingers softly up and down her arm, and when she leaving, when it became clear that she had decided it was time, I held her head and told her that everything would be alright.
Because even though I don't know for certain and even though no one has returned to confirm this, I'm pretty goddamned sure that everything will be OK when we die. Probably a lot more OK than it is on this planet full of screwballs killing each other and poisoning the air and land and water.
We are in the process of moving: boxing up, giving away, hauling, shifting, accepting changed circumstances and preparing ourselves for the days ahead. I've always said that if I teach my kids anything it will be that life, from one end to the other, is a never-ending series of changes and that the ways we respond to those changes will determine the content of our character. Do we kick and scream, fight and avoid? Or do we choose grace? Acceptance? There will always be something new and different on the other side of change. Why not choose curiosity instead of opposition? Why not let the change come, wash over you and then see who you are in the aftermath? Life, and death, can be a scary stare into the abyss of the unknown, or they can be an adventure, with change as the fuel that propels you into the next part of the story of your great, unique and important existence.
I have long cringed at the coming of March. I remember the time I heard Kristian Matsson sing his haunting and lovely song, The Wild Hunt. I thought, Yep, that's March, alright: "There is a crow moon coming in, well you keep looking out. It is the hollow month of March now sweeping in. Lets watch phenomenons arise out of the darkness now..." The weather is weird in March, totally unpredictable, and the month is bookmarked, for me, by the death of two beautiful young men: Josh Rehm and Reid Winpenny. I hate that those boys died, and so since their deaths I have hated March. But I've softened recently. Life did for me what life will do if you let it: life found a way to teach me new things about death. Last night, as I was driving south, to sit vigil with a person who was in her last hours here, I looked at the moon, giant and glowing, and I breathed in the air. It had that great March smell: winter with a whisper of spring mixed-in. I thought, "what a nice night to die."
And it was. It was.