last breath

My mother gasped for air. The ocean sound of ujjayi with the mouth open. But there was no apana, no energy with an out-breath – only the sobs of my sisters in the background. This moment, this precious moment, was our last breath together.

As I stared at her, breath no longer animated her body. The woman before me was my life’s constancy, together in both birth and death. Once a buoyant and happy, loving but stern taskmaster, she had morphed before my eyes into a cold slab of white shriveled flesh.

But this moment of her passing had a peculiar sense of achievement, for it was the gasp of goodbye and kiss of moving on. Then I recalled what Ram Das had written in Still Here: “Death is our greatest challenge, as well as our greatest spiritual opportunity.

Minutes later, I got up from the foot of her bed and walked down the nursing home corridor to cry. Collecting myself, I called my daughter in Minneapolis to tell her the news. After four days in the hospital, I told her, my mom had passed.

I loved my mother as most sons do. I didn’t quite understand her world, as she couldn’t quite fathom mine. She, the aproned 90-year old traditional Czech with a grammar school education. Me, the t-shirted, jaded university-trained 50-year old. Her world and mine were more than generations apart. Lawrence Welk meets the Dalai Lama. Suburbia meets Soho. Limbo meets Lennon.

My Catholic upbringing, which was so important to her, had sowed seeds of critical thinking that eventually turned the holy church on its head. The mop-top ‘60s and hang-loose ‘70s birthed a conscientious objector and social scientist, a Buddhist meditator and yoga teacher. During all of these changes, she remained the faith-driven arbiter of right and wrong, of simple views of how life ought to be lived, like the commandments etched in marble at her parish sacristy.

Despite our differences, we met somewhere in the middle over the decades. Weekly talks revolved around relationships and old times held in common. Always couched by bookends made of those simple words “I love you.” Words understood like two good friends on a park bench who cannot speak the same language, yet recognize the simple affectionate gaze in each other’s eyes. Like two fish flip-flopping separately on the shore to find the water that sustains them both.

But her last breath called out to me now, like the sound of love momentarily interrupted. Breath, the outward manifestation of the life force, bound my mother and me together as it binds us all. The infinitely creative energy that rides on our breath was the common denominator of our differences.

My mother was born in bed in a rural Wisconsin hamlet where only Bohemian was spoken. That was her world for the first 16 years as faith, food and family served as the impregnable string connecting her birth and death like pearls of different moments in time.

So much had passed between us, so many beginnings and endings. The tenderness of a mother holding her only son as he fumbles with her fingers. Communion and confirmation and moral criticism. Fits of adolescent irrationality testing invisible boundaries. Confusing years of war and contention, peace and love. The prodigal return with a child with whom she spends hours crawling on the floor. Her tears of disappointment with my divorce. Then twenty years of synchrony.

Ram Das goes on to explain that “the moment of death does not necessarily transform us; we die, after all, as who we are, no better or worse, no wiser or more ignorant. We each bring to the moment of our passing the summation of all that we’ve lived and done.” That also applies to those who are present at our passage into the Great Unknown, for they share in our summation as part of the living.

Our eyes did not meet at her passing. She fell into a coma four days earlier. On that first day, I held her wrinkled hand and asked if she recognized my voice. I felt the squeeze of sweet affirmation where words again failed. I whispered in her ear and into her heart, “Say your prayers.” Those prayers to Jesus and Mary and Joseph that were never far from her lips. That would be our last audible communication.

The days passed in vigil at my mother’s bedside until that warm September Sunday morning. A priest and nun came and went, when she usually nodded off and struggled to stay awake at Mass. My sisters and I awaited her death.

I sat with eyes closed in meditation, visualizing Jesus above her bed with intense rays of white light and love pouring down onto her. I slowly breathed in and then out from my heart to hers. And back again very slowly.

There was that last gasp for air. I opened my eyes to see this frail, sweet old woman with mouth widened and stilled. I closed my eyes again and returned to my breath. Then, the tingling of her energy, of her wind, onto my body. It hovered for a few seconds and it was gone. This woman who had given me life gave me a last, lasting memory like none other.

At his own mother’s death, Ram Das felt she was like a person in a collapsing building. “Our connection seems to be independent of the building,” he told her. “You’ll go on even though your body won’t. And we’ll stay connected.” I know what he meant.

Thoughts of my mother now drift through my mind like so much decaying wood on the beach, bobbing up and down with the rolling tide as she swims over that vast ocean of love. They are memories accompanied by a tender joy and sad realization of how fleeting they all are.

This is death’s bittersweet quality, always in the background, to remind me of my own impermanence as I await patiently at the distant shore to join her in my own time, with the affectionate eyes of an old friend.

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