I peered with intent into his eyes, but could not distinguish the last thoughts passing through his mind.
I’ve watched many souls move from this life and venture into the great unknown beyond our measured time; man’s feeble attempt to constrain eternity.
Most cases, the instance was quick and accompanied by considerable pain, not for me you understand unless emotional toil counts.
At times it was a gruesome experience for both of us, but traumatically persistent for me, as I had to wake the next morning and remember; a fate graciously removed from the other individual involved.
As a paramedic, trauma was no stranger to my days and many of my nights.
The gentleman tonight was different.
When I arrived to assist him, he was lucid and conversational, at least enough to tell me he felt on the verge of dying.
His voice though hushed, had a tone of uncertainty. Not regarding death; but more concern with the process at the moment of no longer breathing.
I learned early not to disregard such comments as flippant as many patients with underlying illness or acute symptoms seem to have an uncanny ability to predict imminent death with accurate results.
He didn’t appear ill as most might. He quietly spoke of a long battle with cancer.
His eyes lit up when he conveyed the hopefulness brought by remission just a year prior after multiple months of chemotherapy, countless surgeries, and even a previous near-death experience when his heart stopped during one operation.
That time, he didn’t know how close death was until the surgeon told him the next day.
Tonight, he seemed more aware of it being nearby to the moments we shared.
He said remission surprised the oncologist with clear scans in hand last year and was astonishing based on the original prognosis.
Last week, he discovered the original expectations re-emerged with a vengeance but this time, no such hope for another miracle.
He told me shortly after I arrived of his hospice orders and desire to withhold any additional care or resuscitation attempts at the time death was without question.
He just didn’t want to die alone; that’s why he called 911 and why he asked us to stay.
And now he begged me to tell him about what to expect in his final moments on earth. Surely as a paramedic and seeing people die, I had some magical insight to what dying felt like and I could share?
But I didn’t. I’ve never experienced death first hand so had no foundation to draw on.
One moment a person was alive and the next moment they were not.
So I provided him with words I felt he wanted to hear, and in a calm voice I offered him hope with as much confidence as I could.
He seemed as prepared as any for what came next. His spiritual house in order, I told him he’d be fine.
He appeared to take comfort, and so boldly as I asked him to reveal to me the emotions running through his thoughts and describe exactly what he saw while slipping out of this life.
He said he would. I gently grasped his hand and looked into his eyes.
And then he went silent, closed his eyes, and died.
He was at peace again. I was still wondering what to tell the next person who asked me to help them in death.
I called the coroner and my partner and I waited patiently for them to arrive. We packed up our gear, silently climbed back into our ambulance and got ready for the next call of the night.
I reflect on this specific encounter many times, even now years after I met the man who asked me to help him face the uncertainty of death.
I’m no smarter in that regard. I’m a spiritual person also and so have personal comfort knowing when my time comes, I’m as prepared as I might be.
We will spend considerably more time dead than we ever spend alive, so I want to be certain I hedge my bets regarding any afterlife. It seems logical.
I can say watching at least a hundred people die in my career as a paramedic and then a Physician Assistant; two things are undeniable.
When I look at a person who is alive and a moment later I unhook the cardiac monitor and know without a doubt they are dead, they look like two different people.
Unless you witness this phenomenon yourself, I cannot describe the precise difference, but it is unmistakable.
When they die, something besides their color changes; more like an aspect in their overall demeanor. Something is suddenly missing besides breathing, circulation, and muscle tone.
Can this be the soul moving on? I am not the authority to ask.
The second undeniable truth is no living person can describe true death and so we will all pass from alive to not alive with this mystery intact.
Yet there is no surprise we all must face this same endgame. Nothing on this earth will ever change this conviction of truth.
The only difference is whether we go in peace and comfort or we live in fear of our coming death.
That choice is ours and ours alone and we take it to our grave.
But I don’t want to end on such a premise of potential despair for some. Instead, lets finish here with thoughts about life.
The year is new, and while any passing date is such an arbitrary event, it gives us a clear line of sight to gaze to the coming seasons.
So recall when looking forward, our sight is always limited by a horizon; physically but also figuratively.
But something exists beyond this limit.
We can adjust our position or our thoughts and this horizon also changes. Our sight-line moves with our decided action on a new perspective.
Life is a wonderful gift and this year, walk with me into the great unknown of tomorrow with determination to look for the good in our fellow travelers and lets do what we can to help each other on this sometimes unpleasant journey.
Peace, until next time.