What if instead of years, we measured time by the vacuum-packed flashes of existence we carry within us, when the air seemed to be sucked right out of our lungs?
There are moments of awe. Being the first to hold my niece, the one I talked to incessantly through my ever-patient sister’s belly, who arrived under 7 pounds and now towers over me.
And moments of fear. The slow moving reel of a near-collision on a snow-covered road. Items flew through the oncoming car, whose driver slammed on the brakes as I watched her groceries explode across the windshield.
And moments of great sadness, on personal or collective levels. The death of a beloved animal companion, thoughts of whom prick my eyes even now. In junior high our principal’s voice came over the loud speaker system to tell us all that the Challenger space shuttle had exploded. I then understood what previous generations meant, the exquisite memory clarity, about where they were when Kennedy was shot.
And moments of relief. When I told my father I was dating a woman, as we were standing in the kitchen making a meal, and he blinked, said “OK,” and then asked for more potatoes. He and my wife have become great friends over our nearly two decades together. My family’s embrace of my wife is one of the joys of my life.
And moments, quiet in their momentousness. When I answered the phone in the kitchen while helping make food for the descending relatives, to hear the voice of the doctor at our small town hospital calling to say that Daddy Frank had passed away. His body had been alone, in those days before enlightenment spread about the dignity of death midwifery. I felt a momentary burst of sadness that no one had been there with him, but I knew his transition had happened before those machines stopped beeping.
And moments of deep peace. When I walked into the hospital room where Daddy Frank lay, attached to tubes, in the hard-to-define space between life and death, a stroke having ravaged his formidable intellect. I knew instantly there would be no recovery, that he had no more pain. I had hurriedly driven home from college to see him, and in the days before his death, came to the hospital on solo visits to be with him for bits of time. To hold the space as a good friend later termed it. On one trip, I walked in the room and found my uncle sitting silently at the foot of the bed, wearing his work suit, one leg crossed over the other, quietly gazing at the man who became his stepfather in high school.
My uncle had lost his father, and then his mother a decade prior, with time to say goodbye before she went. And then an older brother, larger than life, legendary still, gone in a splash. My uncle’s charming wife would die of cancer less than six months later, although we could not know that then. He would go on to remarry, to have companionship in his later years, as he marked the passing of his sister and her son. And almost himself, but for the quick action of his daughter, the nurse we all wish we had at our sides in times of pain or fear.
But at that moment, he was in the room, fully present with the family patriarch. And fully present with me, as he acknowledged my arrival with a wide grin, a warm hug, and a hearty declaration of how very proud he was of me. (Daddy Frank, prior to his stroke, must have shared the graduate school offers I was considering. He did not speak his pride aloud, but I knew it all the same.) I was struck by the confluence of past times with family, the present in that room, and the future only two of the three of us had. I spent a few moments talking with my uncle, touched my grandfather’s hand, and slipped out the door, leaving my uncle to his watch.
Others who visited talked a lot or cried, or both, as they needed. But he sat, quietly. Contemplating the man who had married his mother, and outlived two wives. Bearing witness to a long life, well-lived. Being the person and doing the heavy lifting I needed that day. Showing up for a task some cannot bear. Spending last moments with respect and reverence. In loving silence.
Sarah Bigham lives in Maryland with her kind chemist wife, their three independent cats, and an unwieldy herb garden. Find her at www.sgbigham.com.