That final inhale/exhale of life…
Mt. Kilimanjaro. Photograph by Mike McHolm
From The New Yorker:
He was gone. I heard the final, awful rattle, the ragged, gasping breath that I couldn’t help thinking was full of his angry, determined desire to beat this impossible thing that had happened to him. He’d taken a fall. He’d hit his head. Now he was dead.
When I’d first walked into the hospital room and saw him hooked up to all the machines that were doing his living for him, I’d had to resist my urge to yell at him to GET UP! I was sure that this is what he would have done had our roles been reversed; he would have believed that he could somehow argue, cajole, even berate me into recovery, as if my situation were simply the result of laziness or a lack of will. This was a man who, in his younger days (and in more innocent times), would routinely arrive late to the airport, run out on the tarmac and flag down the plane pulling out of the gate, a guy who’d climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro at seventy, who’d figured out how to produce films with not much more than a few dollars and a roll of duct tape. I’d never known him once to stand on line. When confronted with the prospect, I’d see him crane his neck above the crowd, and watch his face as he determined how he could jump to the head of it. He was not arrogant, or even entitled. But he was not fond of authority in any guise, and he was generally certain that he knew a better way to get things done. He’d spent a lifetime telling me to get up, brush myself off, use my wits, and figure out how to turn a no into a yes. If I had been younger, I might have seen his submission to this latest and last challenge as a kind of hypocrisy. But I was older, and I knew that there were disasters in life that sheer determination could not conquer, and that his bracing early instructions were less practical than metaphorical.
It was such a radically destabilizing moment, that final inhale/exhale of his life. The brute growl, the rumbling vitality of it, made it impossible to believe that there wouldn’t be another breath, and then another still. It was terrifying and upsetting. It also was uncanny in the way things are that you have heard about all your life and then finally experience—seeing the Mona Lisa, say, after knowing it only from reproductions. It is both more and less than you anticipated, and you find yourself trying to understand which is more real, the imagined or the actual. None of us in the room spoke or moved. We barely breathed ourselves. It was as if we were holding that fragile second in which he was both alive and not alive in our hands, cupping time, imprisoning it as we would a butterfly, so that it would not escape. Once we let go, every second, minute, every year that followed would be one in which he was only dead. It was so perplexing, that moment. What were we to do with ourselves in the face of this removal?