Face to Face With Death

Having a face-to-face encounter with a dying person is really heart-breaking.

Two days after my phone conversation with my aunt who informed me that my other aunt was dying, I traveled almost seven hours on a bus to visit my dying aunt.

Upon arrival, I rushed immediately to the ICU. As I was walking through the dark entrance, I remembered that the last time I saw her was almost a year ago. And so our last conversation. What happened? Why was I disconnected for so long?

At our first eye contact, my lovely aunt greeted me with a smile. Her face lighted up a bit. I could see the joy in her eyes somewhat overpowered the suffering that couldn’t be hidden in her face. Joy and suffering seemed to come hand-in-hand in that moment as if they were best of friends — inseparable. I didn’t know how to respond. I didn’t know how to react. Should I cry? Should I smile? Would it be okay to show my pain?  Should I be happy? Should I ask, “How are you?” I Didn’t know.

For a few seconds, I was stunned, literally unable to move. She was less than one arm away from me, but I didn’t reach for her. With all my communication skill, I couldn’t speak. Tears wanted so badly to escape my eyes, but didn’t flow. Then she took the first move. She reached for me.

Unexpectedly, my dying aunt, still smiling, lying helplessly on her ICU bed, gently lifted her right arm and rendered me a military salute. That, I never anticipated.

In military practice, you cannot lower your arm when saluting an officer until that officer lowers his arm after acknowledging your salute. Only then, you can lower your arm and carry on.

Adding to my surprise, my dearest aunt — with all those hoses attached to her nose and throat, and with all those other medical gadgets wrapped to her wrist and clipped to her index finger — didn’t lower her saluting arm. she waited for me to respond…militarily.

At that moment, my other aunt, the one who called me two days earlier, jerked me back to reality by saying, “Hey Arnold, she’s saluting you! Respond! Salute back!” Then instantly I returned to myself. At last I was able to salute her back as an acknowledgement. After lowering my arm, she lowered hers, all according to how it must be done in the military.

I stayed with her in almost an hour, feeling helpless, inadequate, stupid, hopeless, and most of all feeling the pain — all the pain and suffering— she’s going through.

What I saw in there was a very strong and capable sharp mind trapped in a very weak, incapable, permanently damaged body. In my assessment, I could say that despite her condition, she still had the sharpest mind among us all in that room at the moment. She knew the time. She can even count hours and minutes. She remembers, for she knew I had a military background, she even insisted to follow the correct protocol in saluting. I was amazed!

After the saluting moment, she opened her mouth which was already half open because of the tube attached to it. Without audible sound, she uttered a word I instantly recognized by reading her lips. She said, “your mama?” She was asking me where’s my mom. She knew that my mom (her eldest sister) lives in Thailand, and she was asking me  through gesture if my mom is coming home. I quickly and enthusiastically answered that part. With confidence, I said, “Yes. She’s coming today. She will arrive at the airport in six hours time, and I will get her there and bring her to you here.”

Then she lifted her right hand again and gestured the thumb’s up sign. She smiled again while nodding.

I didn’t expect either what happened next. She turned her head to my other aunt, and signaled that she needed a paper and a pen. Then she looked at me as if instructing me to pay attention to what she’s going to write. I did not dare to resist or contradict. As she stroked the first letter, I fixed my eyes to the paper. I saw “W” and then “e” and then “l”

With all her remaining strength, in a very slow motion, she completed her message. It read:

Sister, Welcome back to the Philippines! I love you!

Then she attached her signature, looked at me and threw me a very sweet smile. That smile melted me instantly. My tears began to flow.

For me, it was a very humbling experience. I felt stupid and lousy. I couldn’t respond appropriately on the first few seconds of our encounter, I didn’t know what words to say, I didn’t know what emotion to feel and how to express it. Or whether I should express it or not. I didn’t know how to move or act. Everything for me was awkward, confusing, hurting!

Watching my dearest aunt on her face-to-face encounter with death made me think how short life is and how much and how far we divert from the most important matters in life. On her last moments, everything that mattered to my aunt was her precious relationships. All her academic achievements, previous prestige, her titles and other possessions faded in thin air as if they were not important at all. Everything that’s important on her dying hours were her precious relationships — her family, her best friends.

After that encounter, I went outside the hospital to grasp for fresh air, I went to the nearby mall to buy some food I could stock. I watched people around me — those people at the streets, at the mall, at the stores, even those people at the hospital. I asked myself, what am I busy right now in my life? Do these things that preoccupy my heart and mind right now will still preoccupy me on my death bed when my time comes? Or like my dear aunt, will they vanish in thin air too, like a non-important item ready to be dislodged in the trash anytime?

I sensed a misalignment — a very profound one. Many people I worked with, and that includes me, live their lives (our lives) accumulating things and experiences that I think wouldn’t even matter when the time comes. Many of us preoccupy our daily life with activities that will not make sense on our deathbed.

My dear aunt, on her last days, didn’t even remember she was a beauty queen during her time. She didn’t mention any of her possessions, or how much money she left on the bank. She did not boast about her brilliant ideas and her incoming projects. No, during those days, her last days, her focus was her loved ones, she wrote repeatedly the names of her family, one by one on papers. She wrote repeatedly the words “I love you!” both in English and in our local dialect.

I didn’t sense a feeling of regret from her. I didn’t see bitterness either. The nurse even told me, “I admire your aunt! She’s very patient — very slow to complain and that she never got angry when in pain. Unlike many patients who complain non-stop about their pain and become angry to the nurses, to the doctors, even to God.”

Fast forwarding my life to that moment, to my last days, I ask myself, will I ever feel regret? Will I look back on the years that passed and say, “I should not have lived my life that way.”

All her life, she has been a great inspiration to me…yes up to the very last days of her consciousness. I think her face-to-face moment with death awakened in me the spirit of renewal, the desire to filter life on a daily basis, removing non-essentials, focusing only on what matters most in life, forgetting those things that will not make sense on my death bed when my time comes. She left me an impact that will last until my last breath. For as long as I live, she lives in my heart too.

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One thought on “Face to Face With Death

  1. Really enjoyed this touching piece…through this experience it sounds like you came to a most profound realisation.

    I think everyone feels somewhat paralysed when seeing loved one’s close to leave this life…and we are all disappointed in that moment because our actions (or lack of) appear to belie what’s in our heart. But deep down we each know that depth of our love for those close to use

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