On Christmas day I sat with a woman as she was dying.
I wasn’t sad for her.
It was her time to go. She was 90 years old. She’d had a full life, a long life with all of the trimmings: husband, children, and grandchildren.
On Christmas Eve her daughter told me she couldn’t be present when her mother died, it would hurt too much. She kissed her mother’s paper thin cheek and said, “See you tomorrow Mom.” Her mother couldn’t respond, but she heard, hearing is the last sense to leave. We went out of the room. The daughter’s eyes were wet when she turned to me and said, “I hope she doesn’t die on Christmas day. I don’t want that for the rest of my Christmases.” As I sat with this withered little old lady, her breaths becoming farther apart, I thought that 90 is a whole bunch of years. It takes a while to count to 90.
Most of us won’t live that long.
There are those of us whose lifetime will be half that amount of time. By forty five years old you’ve had a child or two or three, but maybe the grand kids haven’t arrived yet. Then one day you’re gone, dead, for whatever reason, cancer, car accident, and the rest of us are shocked. It would be said your life was cut short, and in its prime, there was so much more to do. Left unfinished was a long bucket list.
Some of us don’t even get to grow up, see a driver’s license, or kiss a first crush. We will say your life was just a drop in the bucket, a fraction of the years we expect to get. A random person reading about your death in the paper would shake their head and feel sad for you, and especially for your grieving family.
A small percentage of us, but it happens more often than we care to think, will have a very short life, and die before you are old enough to lose the first tooth. And even younger, you haven’t yet learned to crawl, still lying in a cradle, cooing and laughing at your parents making faces, and tickling your tummy. Maybe you just stopped breathing in your sleep.
My father was 53 when his heart quit. “Ooh, that’s young,” people say to me. Yes, but he didn’t see his death coming, he had no fear. He laid his book on his chest, pages down, his glasses were folded on the bedside table, and the lamp was left on. He must have thought, “I feel kind of strange and so tired. I’ll just close my eyes for a minute.” And that was it. That was all the life he was meant to have, no matter what the rest of us thought. I miss my dad, but, I’m so grateful that’s how he died.
I want to die like that.
Now, my son, who was twelve years old, died slowly, as a cancer took him a little bit at a time. Those of us who watched went through all spectra of agonized emotion. My child suffered with an agony of his spirit and body. We fought his imminent death for a few extra months of life, so we could have him with us, and he could walk stooped over and bone skinny like a twig, an old man of twelve years.
I regret that his suffering was prolonged, but I found it almost impossible to let him go.
Very few of us can step aside. No, we hang on with skin under our fingernails, our hearts twisting inside our chests, picturing our own lives without our loved one stretching before us as an empty desert.
But it’s not about us who are going to be left behind; it should be about those who are on the threshold about to step across. On Christmas Eve I asked the daughter, “Have you said goodbye to your mom? Did you tell her you’re going to be OK, and she can go? I think she is waiting for that. No parent wants to think of their child as suffering.” She just couldn’t let her tired old mother go. Instead she said, “See you tomorrow mom.” And she did, in the morning, her mother died in the late afternoon.
At the end of my son’s life, when I followed him, hung onto him as long as I could and he was showing me that he was fading, and hovering in between, I was finally able to pray for an end to his suffering. “Please God,” I said, “Please take this boy. Take him to where he can run and play again.” And, as his breathing faltered I told him, “Go! It’s time to go, little man. Don’t worry about us, we’ll be OK. And we’re gonna catch up to you again, one day.”
We are not supposed to know when we end, how long each of us has, or why some of us live longer than others. As sure as we are born, we are meant to die, regardless if we and those around us, are ready. But, however long it is, it’s a life – our life. And it might be just long enough to enter the world with a frail heart that beats only a few times before it is silenced forever.
For those of us left here without you, tears cascade and we hurt so terribly we wonder how our own heart continues to beat. And we cry for you! We cry for all of the things you didn’t get to do.
And we cry for all of the things we didn’t get to do with you.
I’m thinking about my son now, and I say, that was your life. That was all the time you were going to have. And all the time we were going to have with you. For you it’s over. No more laughter, no more seeing your gorgeous smile.
And no more pain.
It took a little while for this train of thought to materialize, but it wasn’t too long after your death that I saw an ambulance racing down the highway with its red lights flashing and siren wailing. It set our dogs to howling. I ran over in my mind where my children were, I thought of your brother, and then I thought of you.
That was when I realized I no longer had to worry about you.
Sweetheart, I was relieved about that because,and this I know for absolute certainty, you will never have to suffer again.
Do you go on somewhere else?
You made such a difference here, in your short while, that I just can’t believe, can’t fathom that’s all there is, that’s all there will be. There’s GOT to be more! Or why do we do this? Wake up each day and go on in a world and in a life that seems so God damn cruel!
I‘m so grateful that almost fourteen years after your death I’m figuring this out.
I go on because when you were here it was a beautiful life, and a beautiful world.
Then, sometimes, and it’s just a random moment in a day, it might even be snowing, dry beads of snow swirling around me, the wind rattling the bare branches of trees, and I’ll feel you near, and my heart will lift. I know it’s as I told you just before you left, (then I wasn’t sure, didn’t believe it, was lying even) – I’m OK. I’m better than OK. This is MY life, MY one shot and I’m going to, GOT to, HAVE to make the best of it.
You’ll be so proud of me.