Last Breath

El que niega la muerte, niega la vida.  (He who denies death, denies life.) — Octavio Paz

Yesterday the last leaf fell from our maple tree as my grandmother succumbed to a long sleep. She is between worlds now, purring like a kitty cat. Fall catches us in a bed of vermillion and rust to soften the blow that everything else around us is fading away. It’s a good time of the year to die.

I watch the leaves to see what the wind has to say. The wind carries the breath of the Crone, and the Crone is my dying grandmother. Sometimes the leaves twirl in whimsy, like children at recess, then chase each other with a round of tag. Recess ends and the leaves become a procession of chicks shooed off by their mother hen.

My Nani calls out to for my dad in one of her delirious night sleeps.

“Tom!” She awakens the caregiver next to her.

Crone’s breath carries her voice on the wind, all the way to Alaska to my father, sleeping thousands of miles away. He hears her voice and suddenly wakes from his slumber.

“Did you hear that?”

My mother has taken to administering morphine to my grandmother every six hours, even waking in the middle of the night to give her doses, so my Nani’s dreams don’t become nightmares. Nani seems content, comfortable, although she has the rattle of death in her breath. Every few days my mother changes the bed sheets and cleans her, and my grandmother continues her perpetual catnap.

The nurse, a small woman like my grandmother, also tends to her. She’s from India and wears head scarf, which brings us comfort, hoping that the nurse’s faith is probably enough for all of us.

When she leaves my grandmother’s side, my mom walks her six-month-old Havanese around the neighborhood, watches the leaves turn colors, and admires the well-kept Craftsmen-style homes of Bellingham, Washington. She passes by a field and spots a majestic buck. The buck is alone; startled, he looks up from his meal of grass. Perhaps he waits for his partner, just as my grandfather waits for my Nani.

My ex-husband from Venezuela comes to my mother in her dreams and plants a kiss on her cheek. Perhaps he comes to say “thank you for everything”, perhaps to say “good-bye”. Perhaps it’s to say “good-bye” to my Nani, the death rattle in her throat growing louder.

Brown leaves swirl in confused chaos outside of my sister’s office. She’s trying to work, but her mind is as unfocused as the wind. What can she accomplish today when all she can think about is Nani? Who knows how much longer she will be in this world?

My mom and the nurse move my grandmother into a new position, but the small adjustment hastens Nani’s journey. The death rattle ceases, and the silence that follows is louder than anything they have heard this week.

After one full minute, my grandmother takes another breath. It is the deepest, fullest breath she has taken in years. Possibly ever.

Again another minute goes by without any air into her lips.

Stillness. Quiet, like the deer.

Finally, she takes another deep, choked breath, and again this breath is followed by another minute of silence.

This is repeated two more times. Deep, slow, full-bodied breaths, as if to prepare herself for a long underwater submersion.

Are you ready, Caryl? the Crone says.

Yes, I’m ready.

Her spirit is gently puffed out of her body.

I watch the orange, red and gold paper leaf cutouts twirl gently in the soft ventilation of the library, 1,621 miles away in Juneau, Alaska.

“Nani passed an hour ago,” my mother tells me over the phone. Leaves on mobiles gently orbit each other, floating as if without gravity.

“We gave her a bath of lavender. We said good-bye.”

My mom and my sister are starving; they can’t remember the last time they were so hungry. After sharing a sandwich and chips at my grandmother’s dining table, they take their two Havanese dogs out for a walk.

They walk by the field, and there is the beautiful buck again. This time he is with a doe. The buck looks at them directly, as if to protect the doe and say, “Don’t mess with us, we claim this space.”

The doe looks at my mom and sister directly, but with a tentativeness that suggests she isn’t sure if she should stay with the buck or come closer. The puppy jumps and yips, so my mom and sister turn away to give them the peace that they have earned, and move on.

Nani is with Grandfather now.

I pick up the kids from school and we drive home the long corridor of Glacier Highway, where bald eagles perch on streetlights as if extensions of the infrastructure. In the car, I hear the music of lovely sustained chord, like the kind played in yoga or from a church organ.

“What song did you put on?” I ask my son.

“I didn’t put a song on yet,” he says. The lovely chord fades away.

The wind has stopped. The light is flat. The world is holding its breath.

At home, a raven warbles overhead. How will I know when you are with me, when there are so many birds here every day, so many spirits around me? How will I know which one is you?

Later I drive to yoga, and the world exhales as the sky breaks open. The hardest of rain floods the streets, windshield wipers work themselves into a frenzy. Rain sputters and chokes; like the sound of water boiling inside old baseboard heaters, except on the windowpanes of a yoga studio.

Back home, my husband and children watch a flock of varied thrush swirl outside our living room window. The thrush is one of the only birds that mates for life, and is considered to have the most beautiful songs in the world. You know in the spring, that first bird you hear when the buds are forming on the branches, that beautiful bird trill that sounds like an A major 7, calling the forest to awaken from its winter slumber? That’s the varied thrush.

A migratory bird, on their way to winter over in California. One of the brown and gold-flecked birds smacks into my living room window. My husband and kids go out to investigate. The songbird has perished.

The mystics say that when a bird hits your window and dies, your angel is trying to send you a message. Like the thrush, my grandmother was feisty, articulate, colorful, graceful, and a devoted wife, mother, and grandmother. She did not waste time, nor did she mince words. That would have been just like my Nani, to remind those she left behind that even in her death she would still have a say, so pay attention.

My daughter’s class visits the cemetery the next day to gather leaves for the annual fall leaf jump. Yellow maple leaves the size of a man’s hand scattered under yellow branches are raked together into piles. Kindergarteners work together to scoop them into garbage bags. My daughter spots a plastic treasure placed on one of the tombstones, and I stop her hand before she can swipe it up.

In the season when the living fades away and the dead come alive, the spirits of the deceased return to Mexico in an orange kaleidoscope of Monarch butterflies. Within the week, marigolds will be placed in Mexican cemeteries; families will celebrate loved ones who have moved on during Dia de Muertos. Offerings will be laid on alters, candles illuminating the way so that departed loved ones can find their way back to celebrate with the living again.

“What should we lay out for Nani?”I ask the kids. Some grapes and pretzels, definitely. Hopefully my dad will play her a song. She was always the first one on the dance floor.

My sister plays Nani’s electric piano while her husband plays along on his guitar. The piano sounds sweet and true, just like the songbird. My aunt picks the last of her brilliant dahlias in honor of my grandmother and sets a bouquet on her dining table. Variegated colors in fuchsia, rose and crimson, vibrant as my grandmother was in her colorful prints; she would often match her yellow pants with a yellow flowered top.

My mom invites Nani’s nurse to help herself to any of Nani’s beautiful wardrobe – they were both about the same size. My grandmother’s hearing aids are given to the other caregiver who sends them to her mother in Honduras.

The next day, a chorus of moody cellos envelops us as I drive my kids to school under eagles’ and ravens’ perch. We climb a hill into the mist, into the Crone’s breath, that lingers in tree-lined mountain ridges. Violins herald our descent towards the Gastineau channel, puffy clouds of gold blanket the horizon. Cracks of orange sky peek out, piquing curiosity as to what lies beyond, the way inspirational posters imagine heaven.

Drums build the score, and I feel like I’m in the end of the movie when the dam keeping my tears at bay finally breaches. Tender xylophone chimes in, reminding me to show compassion to myself – yes, you have felt, you have loved, and you will grieve.

The song crescendos with violins, cellos, and drums, all pounding in sync. Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!

Until everything falls away, and only one cello remains.

We drive home from school that afternoon, past the eagles on the lampposts, past a full rainbow on the other side of the channel. It is a rainbow without rain, created with the setting sun and the last of the mist. On Crone’s last breath.

Photo by Adrian @aows on Unsplash