Sometimes we sat beside her bed in silence, listening to her breathing. Sometimes we paced around the house, eating when we weren’t hungry, checking email for the third time that minute. When the nurse arrived for her daily visit, we peppered her with quiet questions:
“What’s the heart rate?”
“How is she doing?”
“How much longer?”
I never knew that death could so closely resemble birth.
* * * * *
When we are born, when we come screaming into this world all covered in mucus and blood, still attached to our mother, death is conceived, because as soon as life appears, death is the inevitable end. In other words, birth is the conception of death.
So when my grandmother’s breathing began taking pauses, and her heart rate dropped into the low 30s, and her skin took on the pale hue of a white candle, we gathered at her house. We watched her labor. We waited for her body to birth her soul.
But this second birth can be a scary one. The person we know is passing away, and that which is birthed is invisible to us. It is very easy to feel as if we will be left with nothing but an empty body, the husk of memories, and a tangible reminder of the dark road we ourselves must eventually walk.
The first birth, that of our body, is usually accompanied by tears of joy and signs of physical life. The second birth, that of our soul, is usually accompanied by silence, followed closely by tears of sadness and the sound of heartfelt weeping. Mourning. Loss.
* * * * *
I have never been this close to death. I have never before stood by the side of the bed and watched each labored breath, wondered if this one, or this one, or this one would be the last. I have never watched the rise and fall of someone’s chest from across the room. I have rarely thought about what it takes to separate a person from their body.
Yet in these moments, with death gathering, I have been surprised at the peace in the room. Sure, there is sadness at the pending separation. Disappointment that we will not hear her voice again here on earth. But there is also a right-ness in the whole thing, gratefulness for a life well-lived. Even more strange, I feel an eagerness for my own soul-birth, an unfamiliar desire that, when the time is right, I might leave the cares of this world behind and enter into a brand new reality.
* * * * *
Some people tend to discount Ecclesiastes as a book of ravings written by a jaded, materialistic old man who is filled with nothing but regret. Yet there are more than a few gems tucked away in there. This one comes to mind as my grandmother’s final days pass:
A good name is better than a good ointment,
And the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth.
It is better to go to a house of mourning, Than to go to a house of feasting,
Because that is the end of every man, And the living takes it to heart.
* * * * *
So we wait. And we sing. And I watch with complete amazement this laboring, this birth of a soul.