Guest Commentary By Haven Parrott
In the timeless pause immediately following a baby’s birth, the attenders wait with held breaths for the wee one to draw her first. A lusty wail signals the greedy gulping and successful filling of little lungs, and there is a collective sigh of glad relief.
Every first breath is an inhale: a filling, a receiving. And every last breath is an exhale: an emptying, a releasing.
It turns out that the four days spent in the sacred cocoon, the grace-insulated space of my mother’s dying, has become my soul’s ground zero.
Everything that matters now was distilled there, where there was no awareness of time, worry or fear. In Mama’s dying place there was only family and love, friends and fellowship, gratitude and peace.
Mine was a front-row seat to mortality’s march on my Mama. Over the course of those days her respiration went from measured and deep to raspy and shallow until it was, in the stillness at the end, merely an occasional, dainty sipping of air.
Death chased Mama’s breath up from her feet into her mouth and, finally, out of it. At the last, I held in my arms the woman whose arms had first held me.
My mother had become my daughter. She’d given me my first bath; I gave her her last. She’d brought me home from a hospital; I walked her Home from a hospital. She’d released me to live; I released her to die.
It is the way of life: roles reverse, seasons change, time’s river rolls forever along with little fanfare or flash. “There is a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die” (Eccl.3:1-2a).
Every first breath is an inhale. And every last breath is an exhale.
And every breath in between — every cycle of inspiration and expiration, of oxygen received and released, of filling and emptying of lungs — is a reminder to welcome what’s coming and to let go of what’s gone. We receive to release, and we release to receive.
The rhythm of respiration is the rhythm of life. And the art of life is just to keep breathing through the receive-release rhythm. Refusing to release obstructs the reception of fresh intake, and respiration is arrested: indeed, life is suffocated.
We’ve all seen it: parents who refuse to let go of grown children, thereby crippling the development of dignity and independence; grudges that are allowed to ferment rather than be forgiven; accomplishments that are lauded but never re-imagined as launching pads; roles that are not relinquished, preventing fresh voices from contributing to the conversation; losses that are allowed to define rather than, in time, become fertilizer for new growth, hope, ministry compassion.
During Mama’s dying time my husband brought a mattress into her room so that I could rest and still be close. Early in the morning of her death day, Mike lay beside me on that mattress, holding me as we listened for changes in Mama’s breathing.
The three feet of open space between the mattress and her hospital bed reminded me of the gulf ever expanding between us. A wave of panic hit, consuming me with the urge to cross the divide and rescue Mama and myself from the inevitable; to hold fast against letting go.
Rising from the warmth of my husband’s arms, I crawled in mother’s bed and cradled her cool, stiffening frame. Maybe I thought I could go with her, or at least find a way to bring her back.
But the divide was ever widening and would, painfully soon, be uncrossable. Reluctantly I released her, and moved back to the mattress where I spooned with Mike while crying my eyes out. I chose to cling to my living husband rather my dying Mama; chose to be embraced by my future rather than stubbornly clutching to a fast-fading present.
Mama would have approved, for it was she who’d spent the respirations of her life teaching me when and how to release what could not be held. My mother understood: loss is not only the way of life; it is also the way to life.
Early January provides a calendared pause between the expiration of the old year and the inception of the new one, an opportunity to reflect upon and then, perhaps, gently and gratefully liberate a role, identity, loved one, long-cherished notion, assumption of rightness, wound, or way of life that no longer works.
The pause of January provides a moment for excruciatingly intentional finger-prying and fist-unclenching in order to produce hands finally fully opened and exquisitely softened to receive the seeds of what’s next from the One who never releases the grip on us.
Breathe in; breathe out. Receive; release. And may every respiration cycle of the new year be an inhale of trust and an exhale of thanksgiving.
“At the last, I held in my arms the woman whose arms had first held me.”