To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world. Antoine de Saint-Exupery
My brother died seven years ago after a massive stroke. His life had not been easy and so most of us looked upon his death as a release from the many torments he endured for almost 70 years. He and I were not close as children and I hadn’t seen much of him as an adult. But when we heard the news of his stroke, we took the train to Philadelphia to be with him for his last breaths. And that is the memory that stays with me: his last breaths.
For three days we took turns sitting in his room, watching him breathe; or, more accurately, listening to him breathe. After a while I found myself counting the seconds between each breath. I was knitting at the time, a prayer shawl that would be given to someone in need, someone, perhaps, like my brother. Unconsciously, I would stop and hold the needles still until the next breath came, and then start knitting again. For some time the space between the breaths seemed constant; seven or eight seconds. Then, a bit longer each time. Until another raspy breath came. This vigil reminded me if something, but it wasn’t until days later that I remembered what it was.
Over ten years ago, in Australia, I was in the delivery room with my daughter, as she labored with her first child. Again, I was knitting, this time a baby blanket that I was hurrying to finish before the baby appeared. I was counting then too; counting the minutes between contractions, halting my needles each time to pay close attention to my watch. Over time, as of course it would, the space between contractions grew shorter and shorter, until, at last, the small, wet head appeared and a life began.
The two events were so alike, and so different. For, at my daughter’s bedside, I witnessed a birth and a first breath. At my brother’s, the end of a life, and the last breath. Each time, I was counting, watching, waiting. But with my brother, the moments between the breaths lengthened, until there were no more. With my daughter, the intervals shortened until the final contraction and the first breath came.
Breath. Most of the time we take it for granted. Only when we have difficulty breathing, whether from a cold, polluted air or because of a more serious condition, do we really pay attention to our breath. Breath, though, is synonymous with life. It is our first and greatest gift from God; it is the last sign of life in the body. And that, I think, is what I learned as witness to these two separate events, one being the inverse of the other. Not a grand “aha’, not the answer to the big question of life after death, although I could have wished it so, but something much simple, beautiful in it own way. I saw that there was symmetry in the design of life. Just as each birth begins a new life, one never before known or seen, “unique in all the world,’ so too, if this symmetry is to remain constant, each death would also begin a new life, one of a different sort, one we have yet seen or known. Parents who wait for their baby say, “We are expecting.” So too, might we not also say that we wait, in expectation, for a life that is to come.
This article first appeared in the Concord Journal, March 12, 2009.