I write this sitting in my living room in front of my wood-stove on a day with a windchill so low it threatens to break records. If I glance up I can see my dog curled against the drafty front door- one side exposed to the warm room, the other to the outside chill. In a few moment he will turn, changing one side for its opposite on the other.
It’s a remarkable illustration of the change that defined that last three weeks of 2017 for me, which were spent both in joyous anticipation (and later celebration) of my second greatnephew’s arrival and in intense crisis management with a family whose loved one had suddenly and dramatically turned towards what would become active dying.
I often tell people that I don’t believe that life and death are two sides of the same coin. Rather, together, they are the coin. And yet, this year, I saw just how differently that coin feels when life arrives compared to when it leaves.
This summer I had the privilege of being present for my first, complication-free, live birth. What struck me (beyond the absolute beauty of it), was the pause, just after the final push and just before the first breath. The air vibrated with love and anticipation, rewarded immediately with a deep inhale that broke the stillness.
In that pause I was reminded of the pause that occurs just after the dying have exhaled their final breath and just before the surrounding people become aware that it was final. The air vibrates then too, with many emotions, but the stillness will not be broken. No matter how much the people in the room move, the stillness of death is terrible in its finiteness.
After that first inhale, the midwives and the mother were busy welcoming the baby, checking health and wellness, bonding. Nothing felt rushed or hurried, and all felt imbued with the sense of contentment.
After the final exhale… well… One death I was present for this year was met with quiet resignation. Although surrounded by family and caressed by his wife of nearly 80 years as he died, when his death was confirmed she pulled her hands away. The room was filled with uncomfortable quiet until finally someone began a prayer. They seemed to fidget and cough as a way to mask the stillness and silence. No one touched him again before they left to make way for the funeral home.
My niece told me that after her first son was born she was so full of love and wonder that her heart felt bigger than she could hold. It wasn’t until a friend asked, days after his birth, if he had all of his fingers and toes that she even thought to do the cliched counting. She was simply immersed in the wholeness of this new life in the world.
Another death I was present for was sudden. Although he was clearly dying I had been on the verge of telling the family that it seemed likely he would live at least another day when all attention turned to his final breath. Without waiting for confirmation his family gathered around him- holding him in any way they could. The slight chaos formed a vortex around his still and silent body as everyone did what they needed to do to fill the room with love for every part of him- his eyes, his hands, his humor- before they were finally ready to say goodbye to the whole of him.
This December my niece gave birth to a healthy son. While I wasn’t able to be there with them, she kept me posted until she moved into active labor. And, knowing I was waiting, not long after the birth sent me a text with a picture of him telling me when he arrived, his height, and weight, and that he had arrived loud and indignant. She didn’t tell me how many fingers or toes he had, and I didn’t ask. Nor did I zoom in on the picture to count.
When I am present at a death I stay with the body, usually even after the family is ready to move away. Even if the body will not be kept at home for a home funeral I tend to it. I brush hair and close eyelids. I arrange hands, and pillows behind the head. I straighten blankets. I move gently and talk softly while I work. It is my own ritual to say goodbye. In doing so, I try and honor the stillness and silence of death.
When I held my tiny and new greatnephew for the first time I marveled at his smallness, his warmth, his tiny heart so fiercely beating against my chest, his indignant (it may become a character trait) rooting and cry when he was hungry. Even when settled and sleeping he thrummed with life.
To me our work is not in overcoming our fear of death, but in coming into relationship with our own mortality. We begin and we end, and if we are lucky there are a great many years in between the two that are filled with love and wellness. Some end before they arrive in this world, others end long after they are ready to leave it.
The day is cold and the house is warm and my dog turns and turns to find a balance that suits him. I sit and write and think about living in balance with the fact that no matter how long we are alive for we thrum until we are still.