A heartbeat. A breath.
That’s the line. And as fine as it is, most of us never realize how close we walk it.
Tonight, my grandfather performs a high-wire act from a hospice bed, precariously teetering over the Great Beyond like a lunatic daredevil. It’s a dance, almost, a back-and-forth between here and eternity, and the music plays only for him. His breathing is so shallow as to be nearly imperceptible; his eyes struggle to focus on even the closest objects.
In every way, he looks like someone who is dying.
To stand there and look at him is to be aware of the mortality we all share. Tonight, nearly everyone’s eyes swelled with tears just from watching him breathe, seeing his chest work hard against the force of gravity to take in even the tiniest bit of air. I watched my father, sitting stoically in Pop’s old chair, suddenly overcome with the reality of the situation: that we are sitting around, watching my grandfather die. His eyes turned red and then the tears flowed, and he buried his face into his left hand. Not out of shame or embarrassment, I think, but out of exhaustion.
Death does not come quickly. Despite how it may appear in the movies or on TV, the timeline for the end of human life doesn’t move briskly along or come to a neat end on the hour. It drags. There is a lot of waiting. There is a lot of standing. There is a lot of thinking.
There is a lot of nothing, and yet simultaneously each moment, every second, carries everything inside. Because you don’t know when that last moment, that final breath, is going to come. And that unknown, that deranged x-factor, plays havoc with your mind and heart. I see my father and grandmother and aunt and uncle battling exhaustion and I witness the struggle between the body’s need for sleep and the heart’s need to be present just in case that next second, that upcoming moment, is the one. It is a war of wills, waged within each of them, and there is not a moment when they do not fight it.
But how deep the remorse, how fragrant the grief, if they were to go to sleep and miss Pop’s death? How brutal would their own imagination treat them if they were somehow asleep, or bathing, or eating, or whatever when the barrier between time and eternity came down for Pop?
So they push. They fight. They themselves walk the edge with Pop, holding his hand, not wanting to let go. Not because they want him to stay, but because they don’t want him to leave without their being able to wish him well on the journey.
It’s unfathomable how deep love can run between human beings. We glamorize it by making it all about sex, but love, true love, is the stank of human fear mixed with the confusion of human emotion, and it bleeds out wherever men and women patiently sit at the bedside of a loved one walking that fine line. It is unattractive in the Madison Avenue sense because it calls us beyond ourselves; it forces us to tap into reserves we don’t often know we have, and don’t particularly wish to discover.
But in the sense of what the heart hopes for and believes and longs for, it is breathtaking in its beauty. It’s subtle and powerful and immense and frail, and it can be found in something as profoundly simple as a wife and a son and a daughter, standing next to a hospice bed, their own lives intertwined with the rise and fall of a very sick man’s chest.
A heartbeat. A breath.
Right now, we all live or die by them.