When people die, we tend to want to put numbers on them and mark the moments of their life with dates, like bookends holding a life between them as if it were a real thing that could somehow be measured. I understand that need to mark a significance on a calendar or carve it into a stone – a physical action arising from a deep need to make something seem real and lasting. But life never is. And the moments that knit together to make a life cannot be nailed down by scratching symbols and tracking dates anymore than you can know a human being by reading their name. And yet, there it is: Smith Higgins. April 1, 1920 to December 27, 2014.
He was born on April Fool’s Day. Always an April Fool. Quite a character with such charm and a warm, friendly way with folks. Always respectful. Sometimes stubborn. Always kind. The story has it that he had it hard growing up during the Great Depression and that once he set his mind to something, he did it. No exceptions. No excuses. No complaining. That was the way that he lived. But what is on my mind now, more than that, is the way that he died.
That well-appointed hospice building…god disguised as a staff of warm strangers coming and going from the room, lines around their smiling eyes carved out by care…an IU basketball game on mute…a rough overlapping family schedule…the soggy grey evening outside…chocolate chip cookies from Marsh… a sturdy-voiced minister in a wool newsboy cap delivering the last rites from his pocket-sized bible…and the breath.
Looking back, you can say things like, “in his last moments,” or “with his final breath,” but when you are sitting there watching your mother hold his hand and pat it with anticipation, imploring, “hang on daddy, Sue is on her way;” or see your uncle hold his hand, leaning in close, trying to discern the subtle change in color slowly coming over his face, washing it gently from soft pink to shades of grey and yellow; or listen to the strained, shallow puffs of air drawn in by his open mouth and realize that they aren’t really moving his chest any longer; you realize that it is just one moment and another seamlessly woven together into a single stream of awareness that this…or maybe this…is the last moment life will linger in the fragile human body that is your grandfather. At the time, you don’t know it is the last breath until, pausing, leaning in to the silence with your own breath held, you wait and notice that not another one comes. So, that was it. That was the last one. That was how it happened. And a long pause, still waiting, just to be sure. Then a glance at the clock. 7pm. Where there was a man, now we have numbers.
But time didn’t stop when he stopped breathing or when his heart stopped beating even a few minutes before that. It didn’t stop as we hugged and cried, as his children touched his hands and kissed his head, and a loving, well-intentioned daughter-in-law went on and on about what a great life he had and how lucky he was. Time ticked on as his wife left the airport in a shuttle, making her way toward him as quickly as she could. By the time she rushed into the room, going straight to his side and taking his hand, still warm, in hers, he had been gone for over an hour. She kissed him and looked him over with all the genuine affection one could ever hope for.
As we were watching and waiting for that dying to happen, the departure to occur, that one special moment to take place, I felt the need to sing or to reach out and take some collective action that would unite this room of anxious people into a single entity for the purpose of facilitating the passing and marking the moment. But I don’t sing well, and no particular song came to mind. So, the chaos reigned on for several minutes until I asked if we could have a few moments of silence. I had this idea that the moment of passing should be honored and sacred, that we had a responsibility to hold space for it. After all, it was the end of something, wasn’t it? Something important? But, the truth is that endings are an illusion because if we look closely, very closely, something still moves and carries us forward and on, ever on, even now.
Darci Hawxhurst for The Poplar Grove Muse