Lately it seems as if I’ve been consumed with thoughts of mortality, and not just my own. I’ve come to the conclusion that part of being indoctrinated into adulthood comes with experiencing deaths. Sometimes, that indoctrination comes earlier, but regardless of when it happens, it’s impacting.
My first experience of loss came by way of my godparents when I was about ten years old, but I don’t remember much about what I felt. I remember I cried, and I remember the facts. They died in an airplane crash in 1990, returning from a trip to Colombia. Their plane ran out of fuel over New York and crashed by Long Island. One of them died instantly; the other died in the hospital. I also remember my father sitting me down at our dining table to tell me what happened. But I don’t remember feeling the gut-wrenching pain that comes with loss. Or the sleepless nights pondering what happens when you die. Or the feeling helplessness because I, too, would be gone from this earth some day. At ten, death was merely an abstract notion for me. I knew of heaven and hell thanks to the Bible stories and weekly preachings at the Catholic church we went to, and because my father also took it upon himself to educate me on those important facts. I remember hearing a little bit of purgatory, but mostly I remember heaven and hell. I knew I wanted to go to heaven, but even that was an abstraction.
Then, years before my grandmother died (she passed away in 2007), she had a near-death experience. She suffered heart ailments; all her family had. She had been orphaned at a young age, left to the care of her older siblings because her parents had both died of heart attacks. Her siblings also had weak hearts, so it was no surprise that she did, too. It must have been 2002. She had been taken to the hospital because she was suffering a series of heart attacks. My cousins, aunts, and uncle crowded the waiting room of the intensive care unit. We brought sleeping bags and camped out on the cold floor. My aunt, a devout Catholic, and my husband’s uncle, a pastor, engaged in friendly discussion about the true meaning behind the Eucharist: does the bread and wine really become the body and blood of Christ, or is it simply metaphorically speaking. It was then that we nearly lost her, twice. Twice, she flat-lined, her limp body lying on the hospital bed, her children, nearly all eleven of them, gathered around her holding hands, chanting a prayer – I don’t remember which one. I think it was Psalm 23. Behind the closed door with the small window, we cousins peaked, eyes wide open, tears collecting, ready to react for when we heard the final news. But twice, she came back. The doctors told her children not to touch her, to leave her. She couldn’t let go, they said. And she didn’t.
Later, she told us, in confidence, what she saw. She said she saw a tunnel, and a light. And alongside of that walkway towards uncertainty was every single person she loved and had loved. Her children were there, but not the adults they were now. They were children. And we were there, her grandchildren. Age didn’t matter. We were all children. And then she said she was afraid. She saw beasts come to her. Horrid-looking beasts. I can’t remember her exact description, but I remember her stressing they were horrid. They didn’t look as angels should, beautiful, angelic, glowing, but when they spoke to her, they did so in a soothing voice and said, “Be not afraid.” And she said she wasn’t. But she didn’t want grandpa to know, so we didn’t tell him. Instead, we muttered amongst ourselves trying to figure out what that meant. Did that mean the “light at the end of the tunnel” was real? It made death a little more tangible, but not less fearful.
Then my father died and that threw me into another realm of death. I thought I was ready for his death; I had been so many times. And yet the permanence of this death really struck me. I wondered again what it must have felt the moments before he left. He, who had been a priest and had believed in all the mysticism of the Church, and he who had preferred to never again set foot inside a church or take communion or follow any of the church mandates. He who had loved and hated and pained. He who had caused pain and admiration. He who had told me to always check myself every night to see if I’d been a good person that day. Did he do that when he died? Did he get a chance to repent and to make peace with his life? Did he have regrets? Or was I the one left with regrets? Those that are left behind on this earth, are we the ones that feel regrets and guilt?
I think about this every day. The fact that I am not immortal, something that we tend to forget in our younger years (unless we’ve been one of those who’ve had a youth too closely intertwined with death), has become a glowering reality. Maybe it’s because I have a son now. Maybe it’s because I haven’t finished all that I’ve set out to do. Maybe it’s because I still feel like a work in progress. Maybe it’s because I’m afraid. Maybe it’s because I’m starting to feel decay. I’m young, and yet, at the same time, I’m not.
I’m not in a hurry to find out what happens in those moments right before death. I can wait, really. But still, they fascinate and frighten me all the same.