Why are last breaths so important?
We are never there when our father takes his first breath. When our mother takes hers. We are never there when our friends take their first breaths, or our brothers or sisters are born. When our spouse first reaches for air. Unless you’re a parent, you are not there when your favorite relatives breathe for the first time.
Yet it feels important to be there when one of them breathes his last.
Why do we put such significance in a last breath?
We want to be there to hold a hand. To say thank you. To comfort and assure. But mostly we want to be there to mark the moment. To say goodbye to a life. To a spirit.
To mark a memory. An exclamation point on a relationship.
We rarely know when a last breath will come. The day. The hour. But in some cases, we know it is very, very imminent. We are there, by a bedside. Watching a chest heave. A mouth open. A reach for air. It is at once peaceful and awesome.
My dad is breathing once every nine seconds now. About 7 breaths per minute. Some 400 per hour.
I doubt he has ten thousand breaths left. Maybe not even a thousand.
He’s lived 35,782 days. Some 858,760 hours. 20,610,000 minutes. About a quarter billion breaths.
Yet it’s the last one that seems somehow more important.
It will come soon, maybe today. Maybe while I’m holding his hand and looking at his face. Or maybe while I’m out of the room or looking away. It will be very small and very silent. I won’t know it is the last one until there are no more. Maybe twelve or twenty seconds later. Maybe longer.
Maybe I’ll just turn back and there won’t be any breaths. Just stillness. Just past.
They are so tiny now. Almost imperceptible. Yet he is here. That’s what counts. It’s not the strength of the breath; it’s that they are still coming. No strain. No pain. Just soft sleepy gasps.
He’s still here. And so am I. Until there are no more.
Author's note: I wrote this early on the morning of Feb. 27, 2013, sitting by my Dad's bed. He passed away the next day just after noontime. I was there holding his hand to see and share his last breath...five days shy of his 98th birthday.