Monday, August 20, 2012



What is death?
How does it actually happen?

Physiologically - the heart beats its last.  The lungs gasp one more time.  The tiny cells shut down one by one.  No more ATP, no more oxygen, and then they die. 

Do they die like dominoes?

Or layer upon layer?

Or all at once?

We are just cells anyway - packed into organs and stretched into skin and curving into smiles across the lips and sagging blue under the eyes.

 -  and there is the shadowy part of death, the part when the soul leaves. 

-  but if there is a soul - where does it live?  in what tangle of dendrites or burst of heartblood or deep twist of gut? 

Which cells lodge love?  passion?  hatred? 

Where does it go, when it slips away, what happens to that entire catalog of smiles and laughter and memories and colors and dreams and wishes and small grinning secret things? 

Everything that made that person a person - their everything that slips away with that last breath, 

where does it go?

Is the soul really just an intricate series of neuronal pathways? 

Can you really pack the sum of a person into a mass of dying cells?

Here, they want to keep the soul with the body.

Here, the soul is separate.  Even in life. 

Here, a woman will run barefoot and screaming for 14 kilometers, to the most powerful traditional healer, desperate to get her soul back.

She will fall shaking on the ground because the shaman whose child was suffering in the bed next to hers took her soul with him when he left - all because she didn't eat with him when he invited her.  She will throw herself down wild and inconsolable clawing the earth with cracking fingernails.  

Here, losing your soul is worse than death.

Here, you must not lose your soul to death.

Here, in the moments before, in those vague and misty seconds between vibrant being and decomposition, the mothers will press their thumbs tightly over the eyelids, pushing them shut, pulling the jaw upwards towards the teeth - keeping the soul inside.

Here, they will sometimes press crunch and smother before they are even dead.

Here, i have to rip their hands away from the eyelids, open up the airway, tell them, le coeur n'est pas arreter.  Votre enfant vie encore. 

Here, they often know before I do - the minutes before they take their last breathe - the tears slip faster down the high tribally scarred cheekbones, the hand covers the face, and somewhere between telling them we aren't done trying, the gaze locks into nothing and the eyelight melts into another world. 


It surrounds us here.

so much so that we barely notice it
so much so that we can joke about it
so much so that it keeps us awake at night
so much so that it blurs our vision
so much so that its just another day

Today was just another day for me,
but today was also someone else's last day.


although i hold the intricate lace of binds the breathe to the body in my hands every day -
although Minnie's heart stopped beating under our hands just over a week ago -
although I fought for and lost many in Pediatrics -
although I know one day I too will die -
I still cannot stretch my mind far enough around it -
I still cannot reach far enough or contort my thoughts or twist my heart into a lens that would give me any vision or understanding. 

Although I have been surrounded by it -
I am no closer to understanding how a heart stops beating.
I am no closer to understanding how stacks of grinning souls could have been a crowd of frightened and desperate people,
how piles of shoes could have had feet to fill them,
how the children struck down by malaria melt away into memories - silent, leaving not so much as a footprint,
  or if the soul flies away on the wings of last breath,
    or if forcing the eyes shut can keep it with the body,
        or if there is any such thing as a soul at all,
how we cross that thin invisible divide between loved and loving and worm food. 


What is death?
How does it actually happen?

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