spending the last few days keeping vigil at grandpa’s hospice bedside, I’ve counted each of his breaths. As the pauses between his exhale and inhale lengthen, I hold my own breath, listening for his lungs to heave once more, knowing that at some point soon, they won’t. He will exhale, his body will go slack, and he won’t breathe anymore till his Maker remakes him, on the last day.
Many of my friends have welcomed babies in the last year, and they talk about watching their babies sleep, staring at their lovely little bundles, watching each breath–like I have been with my grandpa. It’s reminded me now much the edges of human life are alike: the timing of birth and of death is unpredictable, loved ones are on call, near their cell phones at all hours, of heightened sense. There’s very little that loved ones can do except to be present–babies have to do their work of coming into the world, mothers shepherding the experience (but, at least as I’ve heard, not particularly in “control” of the work going on), just as when a person dies–loved ones are helpless to do the work of dying, we are sequestered as witnesses to the event.
If life’s been long, then no one who witnessed the life’s genesis is there at the deathbed, but an entirely new cast of characters, full of the same sort of love and compassion, is there to be witness to the end of it. There’s still some sort of mystical connection between those gathered at the edges of a life–the same person, beloved of those witnesses, does the hard work of grasping, and of letting go. I never met my paternal great-grandmother, Grandpa’s mom, Marian Ladner Thomey, but I feel as if I’ve gotten to know a bit of her life and experience over the last week.
I’ve studied the same precious face she did, as she held her little boy Charles in her arms. I’ve cradled his bald head as she did, and watched his lips purse and his eyebrows twitch. I’ve witnessed his furrowed brow and his little chuckles in his sometimes-restless sleep. The little boy who must have showed her how to live is now showing me a good way to die.
Marian and I are only witnesses, connected through time and by flesh. The work of birth and the work of death is to be watched, encouraged, but mostly, to be witnessed. It is sacred work to engage in, and those who do it have no power over the journey they’ve been asked to trod. We, the loved ones still in the midst of life, are called to watch, to pay attention and to bear witness to the work being done. To watch for the breath of life, to pay attention to God’s presence and action in the work done of being born and of dying.