Precarity: the breath
Breath is not subject to precarity. Or, at least, not usually.
Acknowledging grief—embracing it even—can sometimes precipitate a precarious state of mind. But sometimes, if I’m lucky, it can prompt a most generous gust of life.
Over the last several weeks, I’ve had the privilege of spending time with a man who is facing his own death with dignity and grace. Step by step, my father has relinquished his own considerable independence but never given up on joy. He has quietly looked to us, his family and his friends, for support and love, and to be sure that we will not leave him alone. Instead, he makes his own forays into himself as he needs or must, knowing that we are always here. And that he is closer to taking up permanent residence in our hearts and memories, when he is no longer in our lives. This enormous concession he is in the process of making is marked by characteristic kindnesses offered to us—sharing his biggest fear but not all his fears, expressing his most pressing need but not all his needs—and accepting us as we are.
He does this through the gap in his teeth, and—as he has always done—the brightening of his big brown eyes, and the lifting and falling of his shaggy grey-and-black eyebrows. With the pithiest of smartly critical and hilarious comments delivered as slowly as he needs to, he shows us how much attention he is still paying to us all, and how much he loves us. Always a handsome man, and despite how thin he has become, he is positively glowing with these last beams of life light. The man who expressed so much life through music and dancing is still making his moves.
This past December, for the first time in seventeen years, almost all of we Lukas, Bouskills, Roots, Blazetichs, and hangers-on, arrived on his doorstep for a family Christmas. Each of us visited him in his much beloved bed in the home he has made with his treasured wife. He said many times then, as he wept with a potent mix of happiness, gratitude and yearning—“ah, it’s so wonderful, so bloody wonderful,….”
So I take a breath, even over skype, and take my turn talking with him, careful to make a direct connection with him, making sure he knows what day it is, who I am and when I’m on the computer or in the room. Sometimes—if he’s conscious for a few minutes and there isn’t too much going on around him—one of us might burst into tears, just quietly, not so much that we bother anyone else. More often these days, he cocks his head one way at me to remind me not to be so serious all the time, or the other way to assure me I don’t need to be so brightly cheerful that it might seem artificial. And I’m grateful that he is spending this time, showing us how he eases into dying.
Contemplating how his own past is shaping the present, he makes simple gestures. He is quiet for a long time or stormy for a few minutes. He wakes and eats every day or two. He reaches up and out for his partner of 35 years. Breath carries him down the path he traipses now. The Luka snore rises from the bed to tell us he’s still with us.
Breath carries on.