Two weeks ago today, at exactly 1:32pm the sun radiated onto my dear father’s face as he passed away. It was gut-wrenchingly beautiful. I watched him for hours prior to that moment. I sat vigilantly at his side; my left hand spread wide on his chest. My kids and my sister were looking at photos on the floor as my mom made toast in the kitchen. I knew death was approaching. The hospice nurses had told me what to look for–mottling of the skin, releasing of the jaw, and the proverbial “death rattle”. My attention was focused, single pointed, meditative. I watched as his breathing went from regular, to irregular, to full-body, to shallow, then more shallow, even more shallow–almost non-existent, to gone. I called out to my family just before he took his last breath. We gathered at his bedside and wept. When he took his last breath his heart continued to beat slowly for a minute or so…and then, it too, was gone. The moment of death was more than surreal. It was holy…sacred.
I’ve never witnessed a human death before so I wanted to pay close attention. It may seem morose, even creepy but death fascinates me. I read the obituaries daily. I dream and wonder about what it is like to melt into non-existence. Even as I drift off into sleep I try to imagine that sleep is actually a little death and I am disintegrating into the emptiness of The Absolute. It’s tremendously relaxing and oddly comforting. Over the years Buddhism has been a helpful resource for my inquiry. I never really thought of death as a union with a “God”-type character but more of a “melting into”–much the way ice melts into water. But still, even in my wildest imagination I could never have expected the feeling I had as I let go of my father.
What was ironic about this event was that it was uncannily familiar to me. I remembered feeling much the same way the very moment my first child was born. All the pain, the terror, the uncertainty of labor culminated in the birth of a human being. I remember looking out the window at the moment she released from my body–the sky was so vividly blue. The birds on the window sill seemed more real than ever before. Everything was so incredibly beautiful. The only word that came into my mind was Sacred. This moment–the moment of birth–was sacred.
Every second of my father’s last moments became more precious to me than anything else in existence. These moments, like my daughter’s birth, were also sacred. As the breath left his body and his heart ceased to beat, I felt my father dissolve into everything. He became The Absolute. I saw him in the sunlight, the breeze, the leaves outside the window, the movement of life. I could feel and see him everywhere–he was everything–and yet he was gone. How do you explain that? How do you come to grips with the sense that this man–this vibrant, intelligent, loving soul–has departed from our world and yet suddenly became everything in it? I can only tell you that from my experience death does not exist in the way I once thought it did. It is not just a melting or changing of “state”. It is beyond words and imagination. Intellectually, I thought I had it down. I’d read enough, meditated enough, been on enough silent retreats to have a handle on what death is. I realized in that one moment that I know nothing. Death is beyond my understanding. I can only say it is brutal and beautiful at the same time. It is existence and non-existence. It is yes and it is no. It is dark and light. It is everything and it is nothing.
I miss my father–the pain of this loss is unbearable at times. He is gone. Nowhere. But just when I feel overwhelmed with the heaviness of grief, my heart seems to open on its own and suddenly, there he is.