Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Beginning I Saw in the End

Donna and Richard Riddle, madly in love.
It’s been eleven years since I sat in the hospital room with my Grandfather, watching him dance with death. It was my first bedside vigil and will not be my last. We sat, wondering how long it would last, watching his chest rise and fall, gambling the minutes… did we have time to go to the bathroom? Time to get a cup of coffee? Time to put on fresh clothes after a frantic race across the state to get there before it was too late?
The doctor had said it could be minutes, hours, days. We didn’t know how long it would be but we knew how it would end. There is no winning in the dancing, just an end of the music, the last pulling of strings humming in the air, becoming vibration with no sound, and then… memory. Waiting beside my Grandfather, my heart was already heavy with the loss of my grandmother three years earlier. I could tap my grief out for you in my own soft shoe, but we all know the face grief wears, and the mask grievers don.
I want to tell you something true, because it is the last day my grandfather had. The morning before I rushed to the hospital, he saw his doctor. He’d had lung cancer and had undergone treatment. He’d been in remission and then his cancer had returned. That morning, he asked his doctor how long he was looking at. Instead of months and years, the doctor gave him weeks and months. I don’t think he had expected that answer.
He hadn’t been feeling well. My parents received a phone call that night. Grandpa told them he thought he needed to go to the hospital. They raced over, but in that short time he had already slipped into unconsciousness. They say animals know when they’re about to die. And we’re animals.
My Grandpa loved life. He soldiered through losing my Grandma without removing himself from the world. But he was tired and he was in pain. That much was obvious in the hospital room.
He was struggling to breathe. We were painted in the room, separate tableaus across the same canvas. What happened to me did not happen to them. I was not ready to say goodbye to him, our rock, but I was ready for his suffering to end. I didn’t think he would be better off without us but I was ready for him to be free. I was ready to deal with my grief on my own time, not his. Being ready to accept the death made all the difference for me. In that room, with the clicks and the whirs of the equipment and the slow, low rattling of his lungs, I was prepared to wait.
I was praying in my head, words my heart couldn’t bear to speak, telling him it was okay, that we would be okay. I don’t know how I knew he wasn’t going to wake up. I think we all did. But we hoped. Sometimes when death comes, hope is a dangerous blade. The fact was we were there because he had decided he was ready. Cancer may have claimed him, but his death was on his terms.
We never really talked about death as a family, as a neighborhood, or as a culture when I grew up. Someone died and everyone put their funeral outfit on and we were sad and gave those grieving some space and then life went on. It tells a lot about my family that they allowed the soft chanting from the corner of the room where I sat. Music helps me move through emotion more easily and we were all doing what we needed to do in those moments.
When it happened it was quick. One second. It felt as if someone opened a door in the wall beside me, soft wind rushing in, and that second stretched into season as winter welcomed in spring and spring turned to summer and the smell of tilled earth, warm with worms, tomatoes and cucumbers, filled the air around us. I was ready for what was coming. I felt the shift as it happened.
One person turned away. One person died and one person cried out. I was aware of two realities. The air in the room stopped moving and I heard the sound of a toe tapping as a green light stepped into the room through the wall beside me. I held my breath, afraid to shatter the moment. On the hospital bed, my grandfather smiled and he lifted out of his body. Whatever you want or need to call it, his spirit, his anima, his soul leapt towards the light that smelled like my childhood summers and blinked away.
I was back in the room and the warmth that held us there was gone. He was gone. The sudden cold sterility of the room was disarming. So quickly, the heat from his body was dissipating. I stood apart from the moment and the grieving. I wanted to stand in sorrow but I was left in shock and wonder.
When I remember that moment, what I remember was not that it was awful for me, but that it left me full of awe for my experience and the gift I was given amid such a welling of sadness. Somewhere in the universe, in the ether, in the springtime around me, the energy I saw leave that room still lives, whether transformed, absorbed, scattered or inhaled, and the warmth of the man I loved became something new.

[Original article published March 23, 2011.]

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