Breath, Neck, Hand

December 28th, 2012

This is a flash essay I wrote a couple months ago. It describes a powerful, faith-affirming moment for me . I’m amazed that I always look back on this memory with wonder, not sadness. Death, after witnessing it so intimately, seems as marvelous and mysterious as birth.

 

Dad’s hand lies inert in mine; the only indication of life there is warmth. His breaths, much louder than anything else in the room, rush in and out of his lungs as if something artificial propels them, but he is not on a ventilator. Marking them is hazardous to my nerves as often ten seconds pass between them. I begin to hold my own breath with his, marveling at the duration. His muscles twitch regularly, fighting against oxygen-deprivation, and I glance at his neck; his pulse throbs, easily visible given his emaciated state.

He has not varied from this condition for hours, and as I settle myself for a long night of watching and listening, cathartic smells of a bowel movement fill the room. I step into the hall, instinctively knowing this is the body’s final purge. After hours of identical moments, death has drawn a step closer. When I return to the room after his cleaning, I note the nurses shaved his face. His hands now rest too perfectly at his sides atop white sheets too unnaturally smooth and neat. His body looks more mannequin than human.

I stretch my hand out for his again to interrupt the stillness. His hand is warm. He is here, I think. But all that is left of him are his lengthening breaths, the pulse at his neck, and the warmth of his hands. I move from one to the other, always coming back to his hand in mine. I have not held his hand since I was a child. Not even for the briefest of moments. His seeming absence now provides me with the unique opportunity of connecting to him through his skin. I imagine that if he knows I’m here, my rapt attention must make him uncomfortable, and probably a little surly at my hovering. I can’t be sure, nor can I be sure that I am connecting at all. His hand is just a hand; warm and rough from years of manual labor. It does not speak to me, only warms my own hand with a kind of assurance, with presence.

I look back at his face, his mouth slightly ajar as air forces itself in. I don’t think his body wants to breathe, yet the programmed force of his mind keeps the rhythm anyway. At his neck, his skin bobs at regular intervals, his blood still pushes life through his limbs and into his hands, warming them. The twitching has stopped. Time stretches agonizingly once more as I become impatient for death, wondering if he will die at all, thinking I will remain forever entranced with his vital signs. The moment immortalizes itself, stretching on beyond this late night hour, filling the entirety of my life. The timelessness has captured me in its limbo, separating me from the rest of humanity—even those in the room with me. I consider that he might be dead already; only his body continues on, soulless.

I watch the analog clock. How many seconds pass between each breath? Finally, a full revolution of the second hand. My attention returns to his slack face thinking this must be it. I furrow my brow in puzzlement. He does not breathe, but the pulse at his neck continues with persistence. His hand is still warm. His heart still beats. Amazed, I adjust myself. I now watch the small but defined thump of life that appears at his neck every second.

I have not been watching the clock since he stopped breathing, expecting death much sooner than this. Has it been a minute? Two? Just when I think his pulse might go on for hours, it stops abruptly. I wait as if it is simply an illusion and will take up pace again. Cessation of life cannot be this seamless and unassuming.

A minute passes; this is not a trick. Released from the final endless moment of his life, I am relieved. But I cannot help marveling that his hand is still warm. I release it, thinking it wrong to grasp the hand when the person is not present. I cry with relief and longing, sewn into the seams of both his life and death at the same time, wondering why, like the other threads of his life, death could not have been more defined.

But then I look up at his face and am shocked at what I see: Life has been stripped profoundly from every pore more certainly than the absent sound of his breath, pulse of his neck, or warmth of his hand. Vacant.

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