It’s March. It’s been March for the last 22 days. I never know from year to year what emotions will bubble to the surface in March or how long the bubbling will last, but something always stirs in me in March and to varying depths and degrees.
Some time in early March I started thinking of those I’ve lost in my life to death – all of my grandparents, my brother, my dad. I was remembering the last weeks of my maternal grandma’s life, her sadness that her life was being cut short by untreated breast cancer that spread to her organs. Once the cancer metastasized in her organs, she declined fast. I have a vivid memory of her saying to me, “there was still so much I had planned to do…I haven’t even finished your quilt.” My grandma had such an amazing work ethic and was never idle, making it especially hard for her to let go and accept that she was leaving things unfinished.
A sense of my own mortality was very present on my mind. I ruminated on the fact that we have a limited shelf life, that our hearts only beat so many beats and then it’s over. I was feeling depressed about aging and expressed to others often, “I don’t like it.” I was keenly aware of those around me that are at a more advanced place on the life spectrum. I was filled with dread, with despair. I am quite sure I expressed out loud (or maybe I just said it in my mind), “this is what we have to look forward to?”
I imagined how difficult it would be for me to lose my mom, especially when I’ve worked so hard to strengthen our relationship and am still very much in need of mothering. My heart yearns for mothering, for nurturing, for nourishment. I was imaging that if my mom died at this point in my life that it would be especially painful for me. I was feeling a lot of pain just imagining losing my mom; I got choked up sharing these thoughts, my imaginings, with a friend.
It finally clicked for me why my mind had traveled to such a grim place.
My brother died 15 years ago today, March 22. I was a senior in college. My brother was 27 years old. He died after a four and a half year battle with brain cancer that in the end spread down his spine. My brother was such a fighter, hardly ever complaining or grumbling about his illness. My brother had a very strong faith in God and a belief in heaven; he was an inspiration to others and touched many lives.
My dad died 3 years ago on March 11. My dad was not especially old when he died. He was 64 years old. Over the last 10 years and more of my dad’s life, he declined physically and mentally from Myotonic muscular dystrophy. My dad was amazingly strong in his body. As a young man he was a championship wrestler. One of my dad’s doctors said of my dad in the last years of his life, “he has the constitution of a horse.” Because of his incredible strength, my dad actually lived quite a long life.
The numerical parallel of my brother’s and dad’s death dates is not lost on me and has forever solidified their death dates in my mind.
Somewhere in my circuitous ruminations on death and mortality I arrived at thoughts of the last breath. I’ve not been with anyone during their dying moment, their final breath. I was imaging what it might be like. I was imaging the pain of witnessing a life slip away, witnessing a life coming to an abrupt stop, the heart wrenching and instant shock or grief that sets in when someone you love passes. I was also imaging the beauty of holding and being present with a loved one during their last breath, that moment when the whole body lets go, when the body completely surrenders, when the struggling and suffering is over. I was imagining the peace and stillness of this moment, the beauty.
A woman in my yoga teacher training program just lost her brother-in-law to cancer. On Friday of this last weekend she shared with our group that she said her good-bye to her brother-in-law earlier that day. Witnessing her grief stirred some things in me and undoubtedly prompted thoughts of the last breath. On Saturday, she and I engaged in a heartfelt dialogue about the beauty of the last breath, of being with someone at the end. I shared my newly discovered desire to be with someone for their last breath. I want to embrace both the pain and the beauty. I want to hold and support someone at the end.
On Sunday our teacher led us in pranayama, or breathing practice. Being fully present with and observing my own breath was very meaningful. Holding my hands on the rib cage of one of the woman in our group as part of a breathing exercise and feeling her lungs fill and expand with air…it was so intimate, so beautiful. Our breath is so precious. Our life is our breath and without breath there is no life.
At the end of our pranayama practice I commented to our teacher and the woman whose brother-in-law was dying that our practice was especially meaningful given our discussion of the last breath the previous day. Our teacher echoed our sentiments of the beauty of the last breath and added, “our last exhalation is the completion of our first inhalation – we finish our first breath.”
In remembrance of my brother, Doug, who would be 42 years old if he were alive today, and my dad, Bob, after whom I was named (Bobby Gene was his nickname as a kid).