So Close I Can Feel God's Breath
- Monday, May 22, 2006
Life on the Edge
Thin places are not only extraordinary places. They are also ordinarily found just this side of the other side.
I long to live life on the edge, braving new frontiers to the very end – as long as on the other side there is a beginning. That's where our story begins: on just an ordinary day in April – at the very end of it all, just this side of the other side.
As a vibrant Florida sun reached its apex in the deep blue sky, I bent over my mother's lifeless body. "Is she dead?" I whispered to myself. I probably should have asked her, but I didn't want to worry her – just in case she really was.
I touched her shoulder. She didn't move. "Oh, dear God, she is dead!" I screamed loudly enough to wake the dead. But not her. "Mom, please don't be dead!" I begged, as if she could control such things. She didn't comment, dramatically increasing the possibility that she was. When it comes to Jewish mothers, death is usually the only explanation for silence.
I placed my hand over her mouth to feel for breath and thought I detected a wisp of air. Or was it just the breeze rattling the shades protecting her from the scorching Florida sun? If only she could have been shielded as easily from the vicissitudes of life.
Frantically, I checked for a pulse. My heart pounded. Hers didn't. Her body grew rigid; her gaze became fixed and glassy. I stared into the faded blue-gray eyes that had once overflowed with love, filled with compassion, sparkled when she laughed, grown intense when she spouted pearls of Yiddish wisdom. I had so often chosen to see life through my mother's eyes because they were so full of life. Now all I could see in them was death. My body froze while my mind raced.
Only minutes before, my mother had awakened me from sound sleep. "I don't feel well." That was all she'd said. I helped her back to her bedroom before she collapsed onto the bed, took several labored breaths, and fell silent.
"Breathe, Mom, breathe!" I shouted over and over again. But she wasn't deaf, just dead. Finally, in resignation, I whispered, "I love you, Mom. I love you." I thought they would be my last words to her.
Then I had an insight. I placed my mouth over hers and blew a stream of air into her lungs. Suddenly she stirred to life. It wasn't long before she took advantage of her newfound breath to speak. "I was floating. It was so nice and peaceful. Then I heard you say 'I love you,' and I decided to come back." From the dead, Mom?' I wondered. But I dared not ask.
The paramedics finally arrived to rush her to the emergency room. She was long settled in her hospital bed when I found myself sitting on a bench on the local boardwalk, trying to calm myself down. The death scene may have been over, but the dreadful reruns played on in my mind.
I removed my shoes and headed for the shoreline, laboring hard in the soft sand to make it to the water. It was the same route I had taken so many times before. But this time was different – I could hardly walk. The symptoms that would later be diagnosed as an incurable neuromuscular disease had overtaken my thirty-something body, leaving me practically bedridden, unemployed, and living with my parents.
Whether or not I could walk, I needed to flee to a place of refuge – to a familiar place of transcendence, where I could be lifted up when the trials of life were getting me down. For years I had made tracks in the moist, packed sand along the edge of that beach, feeling the grains settle comfortably between my toes. It was always to marvel to me how sand, so thoroughly infused by the rising sea, had not yet been claimed by it. Borders are like that. They impart a unique strength and hope, somehow managing to hold a tension between here and there while retaining a distinct place between places for themselves.
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