Last night I watched a woman take her last breath and die.
I had bet Bonnie once, and it wasn’t supposed to happen this way. She was only 57, a principal who had just started at a new school, a newly married son, her husband closing a deal at work that would have brought them money at home.
A month ago, Bonnie was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer whose carriers number less than 50 worldwide. It grew quickly on the hypatic artery that fed her liver, displacing her inner organs and causing her to lose her appetite. Her mother learned she was terminally ill two days before she died.
Bonnie was the older sister of my mother’s oldest friend; their house was her second home growing up. As we sat in the hospital room with Bonnie, slack-jawed and in a coma, her breath coming suddenly like someone gasping for air, my mother began to tell stories to Brenda, Bonnie’s sister.
“Bonnie saved me once. I spilled nail polish all over the carpet in one of the bedrooms, and she told you mom that she did it. Lucy was so mad.”
Over and over, again and again, little bits of information about this woman leaked into the room. She has a son working in L.A. for a billionaire. She did the yard work at their house, because her husband hated it. She cooks standing on one leg, the other foot resting comfortably on the inside of her knee. She wanted her ashes mixed with the ashes of her cat, Fred the Fat, whose frame had been so large when they got him that her 8-year-old son had to use both arms and carry him like a big stack of firewood.
These memories are what it came down to. Bonnie’s life had been full and she was loved. She had touched many lives as a principal, teacher, sister, mother and wife. In the end, though, what really touched me, sitting at her feet, was that her outreach had been small, infinitely small, and made monumental differences.
I had never watched someone’s last moments before. Bonnie’s breath slowly slackened, her color turned gray, her limbs grew cold, and slowly, slowly, she stopped breathing as regularly. When she stopped, I kept expecting to see her chest rise again, because it’s something you expect but don’t notice: breath. In. Out. In. Out. I realized that I had stopped seeing it, but kept believing it was there, like a mirage of life, a last defense mechanism against the inevitable.
I barely knew this woman, yet I cried the hardest when she died. I cried in fear of what was to come: for the other people whose deathbeds I would see, the friends I would lose too early, the relationships that would be taken away from me before I was ready, because you’re never ready. I cried at the thought that one day it would be me lying there, slowly drifting away, my loved ones wishing me the best but begging me not to go. I cried because I felt death cheats us all, because there is no escape. I cried because this is supposed to be normal, but death has never felt normal to me.
Then, inevitably, I couldn’t focus on death anymore. It is hardwired into our lives to want to live, to go on, to pretend that we will be young and vibrant forever. I didn’t want to fight my new focus, my new train of thought that washed over me like a cleansing wave. Death is to remind us what life is all about; what’s really important; what shouldn’t be taken for granted. I suddenly had a clear picture of what I wanted to accomplish before I came here, and realized that I was the only one in my way. I woke up the next morning not weighed down by Bonnie’s death, rather invigorated by her life.
Perhaps that is why the sun seems so much brighter today.