Two years ago today, the world stopped. The songs had been sung, the prayers had been prayed, the sage had been smudged. There was nothing more to do except stop time. My mother had come to the end of her life and there was nothing to be done but let her go.
In those last moments, I whispered my thanks in her ear. The nurse disconnected her from the ventilator and she continued to breath for five minutes, ten minutes, twenty minutes. And somewhere after her thirtieth minute, she took her last breath. I watched as the color left her face, as her fiercely independent spirit left her body, her once-laboring body stopped moving and we cried together, my niece and my nephew.
I can’t tell you what time she died. I can’t tell you how long we stood at her bedside holding her body. When time stops at these moments, all you have is that moment when you understand the world you knew ceases to exist, there is nothing but that absence
Those moments test a faith. When I was younger, I was so assured that god did not exist, that there was no heaven and no hell and when we die, we die. It was a time in my life where I experienced great pain and it was the only answer I had to escape the pain of religious theories that sought to make me conform. When I entered into recovery for my alcoholism – and even today, years down the road – I would say that my concept of god or a higher power was agnostic at best. All I could see were arbitrary rules set down by madmen millennia ago.
There’s a line from the movie “Children of God” by Kareem Mortimer that has always stuck with me. “When you die, your heart stops, but your brain keeps working. In those moments you dream. That dream lasts forever and ever.” While I subscribe to a working faith and two religious traditions today, I’m never sure that there’s a god, an afterlife, all I have is the witness of my ancestors who came before me. I’ve discarded the arbitrary rules when they impede my search for understanding without prejudice. In those moments before death, I have come to understand that regardless of the answer, the passing of a life is a sacred moment and attending to it is a blessing.
In that moment, though it broke my heart to let go, I knew I had to set her consciousness at ease. All the prayers prayed, all the songs sung, if she could hear me at all, I had to release her without regret. So I whispered my thanks. “Thank you for being the best mom. Thank you for loving us. Thank you for showing us love. You go home now. Don’t cry for us, we will survive. You showed us how to live. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
All we have at the end of our lives, if we’re fortunate, is our memories. I had done what I could do to ensure she was well-cared for, she did not die in agony, she did not die in violence, she did not die alone. All I could do was be present for her and remind her as best I could that her life was meaningful, full of love and brought joy to everyone who met her. I sat with her for days beforehand, recounting every memory we had shared together as mother and son. I recalled every story she told me of her life and the lives of her parents and her grandparents. I sat and let all the stories of her memories come to me as best I could before falling asleep.
In the past two years, I’ve sat with her memories still. I tell and retell them to myself so they will continue to exist, so that she will continue to exist and my ancestors will continue to exist. If I have children, I will pass those stories of memories onto them. If god wills my life in another direction, I will commit them to my brother’s children. This is how we as Lakota people have always existed and how we continue to exist.
As my life has changed since those days, I have come to understand the value and virtue of compassion, presence and empathy. For the first year, some thought I should just move on and let go, that my mourning was tedious and reduced my monetary value in the world. Others offered their best sympathy but could not bring themselves to share in those moments of deepest sorrow. And some stood and accompanied me as I sorted my mind and my heart.
The ones who were present without question are the ones who will stay with me. They are the ones who have shared the memories of my mother and my ancestors. In them, a part of her lives on. And in that, there is a joy and a comfort. They will know of a life they never lived. They will carry on someone who was the center of an entire universe when she lived and she will never be dead.
Even though I never know what is beyond death, I know she continues to dream. When my final breath comes, I will continue to dream. And there we will all be in that wonderful moment of reunion in our dreams and our memories, together again, whole and unbroken.