Death came softly through the back door this week. He slipped in quietly while I was busy with my mundane. When I looked up he was sitting with my dear friend Karen, cradling her gently in his grandfather kind arms. He has surprised me again. Death always surprises me.
I’ve seen death’s many faces.
Death has come careening down the mountain like a crazed driver in a Mac truck out of control, crashing headlong into my life. Other times he has paraded in like a dark prince and plucked what he wanted, not caring for anyone but his own hungry ghost. And yet at times, he has been like a familiar friend, and I have been glad of his coming as he opened his gentle arms to those longing for peace.
This time he surprises me again, even though I knew he was coming I turned my back for a moment, like a child playing in the surf waving to her friends on the shore. Only last week Karen stepped up to make an impromptu speech at my book launch, and now she is lying in her bed waiting for death. This large wave tumbles me, takes my breath away and I don’t know which way is up.
I go to meet death.
I cancel all my appointments.
In the morning I write a poem for Karen then drive the four and half hours to sit beside her and hold her hand, kiss her cheek one last time. When I arrive I sit with her for a while. Karen’s good humor and quiet acceptance of death’s coming, lets us lean in close to each moment as it falls ripe and open into the room.
In the room I smell the sweet strange smell of death, familiar and so close I feel his breath on my skin. Death is holding open the door, letting us say goodbye, hearts laid bare by remembering, melting us open like ice in the midday sun, leaking warm tears, letting our love flow out between us to fill the afternoons and quiet moments.
The poem I wanted to read, sits in the car unopened because each moment is too precious, too raw and alive for anything other than what is. Each moment, peels back in simple relief against the great wave of existential wonder, tumbling in before and another takes it place. Each moment so large and full it fills everything, right to the edges, bulging with …… something beyond my words, perhaps “presence” that’s as close as I can find.
We all react differently to death.
Some of us grow quiet and look inside, others talk a lot and look out, some cook and fix and keep busy, others sleep or drink and smoke a lot, cry a lot, some hold on, and others run away, or try to control something. We all meet death in our own way and yet we are all bound in it together.
Death wakes me up and calls me to the present, to remember that feeling of something forgotten, that death is waiting, always. We can invite him in like an old friend or try to run and hide. To know death up close like this is to know life naked in the skin.
The next day I hold Karen’s hand and stroke her arm in a timeless moment with death so close I feel his cool kiss against my cheek. Karen’s eyes are closed and her beautiful aching son sleeps beside her. I sit stroking her arm till my back hurts. Then I bend in to kiss her cheek and say my final goodbye.
She opens her eyes and looks at me through puffy slits, “I felt you praying for me Rita,” she says. I smile back and bend in. Words don’t matter. I don’t tell her that my only prayer is love, a simple wordless act of love.
I don’t have words to describe the deep peace I feel, holding her hand and stroking her arm, as if death holds us in wide embrace. Death and I look down on their sleeping peaceful faces, and there is only love. In that moment there is no sorrow and no fear, only the vast round peace of loving another in deep friendship. It needs no words.
I bend in to say “I love you,” because goodbye feels too final. I feel the soft arms of death around us, and at once I feel small and large and full of gratitude for this moment that is imprinted in my heart.