Where have you been? ask my friends who haven’t seen me out on the usual social runways in recent months.  And I want to say, I’ve been in the family way, meaning I’m in the business of family ministrations; but then I remember the words usually mean barefoot and pregnant, which, in my ripe middle years, I certainly am not.  I lay those words down.  Oh, just busy with lots of things.

And then I pick them up again.  Okay, not with child.  But something akin to it.  There is a great symmetry between birth and death, of course.  A woman in the family way spends months pulsing in wait.  Tending, loving, emotionally nursing; utterly out of control of what is happening.  The life within comes with its own timing, comes when it will. What is needed is attention and strength, tenderness, and patience without will.

And so it is to tend the dying.

Early Saturday morning, I received the summons to the home of my father-in-law.  I  dressed quickly, grabbed a couple of bananas and a clean T-shirt and headed out to hunt down my husband, threading the Charleston streets on his morning run.  Sitting with Lawrence, surrounded by his family, we listened to his labored breathing (yes, labored, as a woman labors in the last hours before birth).  We touched what remained of his flesh, stretched over the honest architecture of bone, eyes distant, pulse receding like the tide.

We waited.  We browsed through family photo albums and I marveled at my husband in tiny incarnations.  We sat in the cradle of the afternoon, and pillowed his silence with our familiar voices.  And in that gentle rock of time and conversation, he took a breath so quiet, we hardly knew it was his last.

A baby’s first job is the hungry suck of air.  And our last job is the flutter and gasp of letting it out. I don’t know which is harder, though they both require lungs full of courage, and, no matter how you see it, faith.  At ninety-five, Lawrence had taken in enough of all that is good, and he had loved it; and then he had the courage to let it go.  In one last sough we hardly heard.  He returned to where he had started, but this time, blanketed by the presence of those he had fathered and loved.

I have never been a mother, delivered a child, held the flesh of my flesh.  But now, I am in the family way, nonetheless.  I am tending the going out of those before me, holding their hands, as I can, while they step backwards toward dependence, as they return toward  stillness; as they summon courage for breathing out.  It is another way of carrying life.  I am content to dwell at the threshold with those I love, finding the pulse in relinquishment.  Because I want, in this life, to  be present for everything:  the circle, the fullness, the emptying, the return.

Lawrence Adams Walker
January 16, 1916 – March 5, 2011

~ by Susan on 03/07/2011.

6 Responses to “a.last.sough.”

  1. A.Labyrinth.Sweet

    Susan, such honor and love in this beautifully mothered reflection. Such tender attention to this carrying of life and sadness and yes, celebration. Peace be to you and Trenholm and to the winding path that circles us together.

  2. Susan,
    Though I’ve had the tremendous joy of being with my own two children in their very first moments of life on earth, I’ve never been with a loved one in their final moments. With love and wishes for great peace for you and Trenholm, I thank you for generously sharing your experience so sensitively and respectfully.

  3. I have to say that when I begin reading a post on this site, I am not certain, at first, whether I am reading you or my dear friend Stephanie. It usually becomes clear after a sentence or two, as your voices are unique, and I feel as if I know Stephanie, know her family and know how she writes and expresses herself. This post today was so familiar to me that I almost thought it was Stephanie’s — so familiar and warm and intimate. My thoughts and prayers go out to you and to your husband and his family — and thank you for sharing your words.

    • Elizabeth, I have been a silent, but ever grateful, partner, listening in as you and Stephanie toss your heartful, playful words back and forth across the blogosphere. I have appreciated your warm comments more than once, and frankly haven’t gotten the hang of comment-and-reply relationships yet, but am touched by your generous thoughts nonetheless. Please forgive my long and shy silence and know that I am an avid follower and fan of your site, and visit it often. Thanks for this comment, yet again, and for following our adventure, which keeps surprising us. Love having you along. Susan


  5. Just so.

    So perfectly, beautifully, gracefully told.

    Thank you for sharing it.

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