Breath, No Breath

Nine o’clock in the evening. My husband and I walk the wide corridor of the ICU. Just over an hour ago we were on our way home from dinner with expectations of a quiet evening, now we meet the eyes of concentrating nurses and weary doctors. 

It was a text from my friend that changed everything that night: “Mom went into cardiac arrest Tuesday night. She is in ICU. Doesn’t look good. I’m sorry I haven’t kept in touch.”

Here it is room 410. I’ve never been to this hospital before. It’s clean. It’s cold. We turn the corner. Suddenly I sense the looming presence of something very dark, something very cold.

As the wide glass door to the room is opened and the curtain pulled back I notice some things: the patient’s eyes are closed; tubes and wires pump the semblance of life into her, artificially heaving the chest and pumping the blood round her mortal shell; the adult children’s eyes are fixed upon the doctor that speaks as he utters syllables in a non-committal tone while the nurses are bustling about with a sterile concern upon their faces. 

I see my friend. She is a grown woman, now in her mid-thirties, but I still see her as a little girl. I was the family babysitter from the time she was an infant to the age of nine. Eventually life separated us. We went for so long without seeing each other, and even though we have spent some time together in the last 3 years, time in my heart stood still. She walks toward me. Hair is tussled and her face is tired from crying. I hold her close and she cries. 

Ah, now I see the other one, her brother. Though he too is grown, I see not the signs of the years that have passed, only his boyish smile and sweet eyes; eyes that, in the years of my absence, have seen war and death and the rejection of the father that walked away from his young children. We hug. He thanks us for coming. He is a boy in the body of a man and she is a little girl trying to be a mommy and a wife.

I move toward the bed. There lies their mother. I realize very quickly that these two will soon be orphans. I see the death like stare in the eye that the doctor opens to help evaluate her condition. Her hands are swollen and are an odd color. Never have I witnessed such a scene before. 

I look toward my friend who is desperately watching her mother. The girl within the woman cries out loud, “I’m so scared! Oh, mom, I’m so scared!” The boy within the man sits down with his head between his hands and says, “I’m losing my best friend and my mother all at once.” He sobs and sobs, “I couldn’t save her!”

The boy was with his mother when she had a massive heart attack. He called for help and proceeded to perform CPR until that help arrived. He had done the same thing for a fellow soldier in Iraq when two bullets pierced the heart. That soldier miraculously survived and he hoped for a similar outcome with his mother. The boy has been by her side since the heart attack, even sleeping in that very room on a window bench. 

Talk of a “Do Not Resuscitate” order and of what mom would have wanted swirl about the room. The weight of decision presses down heavily upon the boy and the girl. Time has moved too quickly. The final grains of the hourglass of life tumble down the narrow passage; life and time rush to an end. Past and present rush together as two streams merging in a rocky place. Regrets and remembrances clamor for attention in the panicked minds of loved ones.

Wild is the storm that rages as the mouth of eternity opens for another soul! My mind returns to another stormy night when the three of us huddled together in a large closet with a flashlight and prayed that the violent summer storm would pass and that mommy and daddy would come home quickly. Heart wrenching are the cries of grief! I long to hold them now and comfort them; to say a pray and to wipe their tears away and distract them with a treat or a toy or a favorite show and tell them it will all be okay. What a wild storm that whips through this room tonight! One will not survive it.

We huddle together again and pray. The girl curls up in the lap of the boy and they hold each other tightly as they weep. The vital signs are erratic now. The girl presses her head to her mother’s and cries, “It’s okay mom, you can let go,” all the while wishing she wouldn’t leave. 

I notice the nurse has turned the monitor with the vital signs away from us. She alone is watching it with fixed eyes and a closed hand pressed to her face. We hold each other. We stand round the mother. I notice her hands, they are a strange blue. “Oh, dearest God, have mercy,” I pray. The children weep. Her arms are now like her hands. The pumps have stopped. Her body is still. 

A doctor enters the room amidst the weeping and puts his stethoscope to her chest, looks up to us and shakes his head. “I’m very sorry,” he says. The storm has given wing to a spirit tonight and in its wake is an eerie calm broken only by sobbing. Sixty-eight years of life and breath; and then there was none.

Indeed, a thin veil is draped between the present and eternity. An imperceptible moment it is when the soul takes its flight to regions beyond. A birth, and there is noise and life and hopes and dreams; a death, and there is silence and loss and nothing. 

A shell of man lying before us reminds those of us whose shells are still inhabited that we too will face the silencing of our life song; that we who remain should live and move and breathe and love. Breath. No breath. In the land of the living may this precious substance of breath, the most precious of temporary gifts, be used to convey our love to God and to man. 

The final note of praise in the grand musical score of the Psalms sounds like this: “Let every thing that hath breath praise the LORD. Praise ye the LORD.”  May this note be the constant of our life, and may it be the note that forms our life song; and may this song form the bridge from this life to the next as we join the chorus of the ages in the glad and sweet refrain of, “Blessing and honor, and glory, and power be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever,” as our faith is turned to sight. Amen.

“Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptable with reverence and godly fear: for our God is a consuming fire.” Hebrews 12:28-29


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