We are crammed in the last row on the plane to San Francisco, the row across from the toilet that no one chooses unless they bought their tickets at the last moment.
The woman sitting next to me has a friend who is dying. She said goodbye over the phone from the most private corner she could find at the Atlanta airport.
I hold her hand as we take off. “This is the worst day of my life,” she near-sobs. “I would rather be anywhere else than here. I need to get to my friend before she passes.” She looks me in the eye. “At least I got to sit next to a kind stranger.”
I fall in and out of a fitful sleep, resting my hand on the woman’s back when my eyes are open and her own turn to water. It is the only thing I can think of that will help.
After landing, the woman turns on her phone and checks her text messages with a growing sense of dread. She knew what happened before she read it: the friend passed ten minutes before we landed, when we were stowing our tray tables and preparing for the descent.
If you have a spare, positive thought to send, please lift it her way.
I step off the bus at the UCSF Medical Center about half an hour early to lunch with my friend Eva, a first year med school student. I find a tree to sit under and take out some words to read. I have all but forgotten the cardboard sign around my neck that says “tell me a story about water” until a woman approaches and lifts me from the page with a question––
“What’s that all about?”
“Hm?” I ask, dazed.
“Water stories? I couldn’t help but noticed that you looked so serene there. And I couldn’t not ask.”
I laugh and tell the story of my year-long trip. “My name is Sharon,” the woman offers, blunt but kind. “I’m a Buddhist chaplain at the Mt. Zion Cancer Center. I have to go see a client in five minutes,” Sharon clips, chipper, “but come at 10am tomorrow to the fifth floor at Mt. Zion Hospital. I’ll meet you there, and I have a story to share.”
Sharon and I sit across from each other in an empty hospital bedroom, the air between us sterile and sharp with disinfectant.
“I am the Midwife of Death,” she begins, her long, silvery hair catching rays of light in the eastern-facing windows.
“After seven years of leukemia my mother was in her last days. I flew out. They decided on cremation. I wanted to bless and anoint her body after death.”
Sharon exhales and smiles. I can feel the feathery weight of her mother’s memory in the room, as present as the central air and occasional announcements directed at nurses on the floor.
“My parents had single beds next to each other at home. They held hands when they slept. I didn’t want him to be haunted by her passing.
Maybe it would be wonderful for you to help me wash her body so that you will see and feel that her spirit has gone away. I suggested. We have to release her spirit so that you can sleep in this room.
“The first time I brought it up, he was silent. When I asked a second time he said yes.”
Sharon surges on. “I had my father pick out her nightgown and together we chose beautiful smells. Dad did all the picking. This is about blessing her departure and making space for you, I told him.
“She passed away at 11:15 at night and her bowels released. We asked the nurse to clean her up. The nurse left. My Dad and I got a basin and we washed her slowly. We were not in a rush.
Take a deep look. The woman you married when you were seventeen is gone.
“We washed her hair. Dad was so ginger. I kept on slowing it down. I’d take a washcloth and go all the way down her arm. I’d kiss her elbow. I’d trace her freckles.
Hold her hand, Dad. This is this beautiful face that you have loved.
“We washed her all the way from top to bottom. We put on lotion. We put on perfume, her new nightgown. Dad was weeping.”
I struggle to keep my hand steady on the audio recorder to avoid handling noise. Sharon’s story is moving the very material of my body.
“We followed the blessing way, rather than the medical way,” Sharon concludes, her face alight. “A dead body is not remains, not medical waste. A dead body is a human being.”
I silence the audio recorder and let the tears I had been holding back fall freely. Something deep within me unclenches––a substance I associate immediately with the pain of the woman on the plane. There’s something else too, something unnamable, that the silent beauty of Sharon’s story has loosened.
“Oh honey,” Sharon whispers, reaching deep within her purse for a packet of tissues. “Why are you crying?”
I struggle to get the words out.
“I’m afraid,” I manage, looking up. Sharon’s warmth urges me onward, to the heart of it. “Afraid of losing those closest to me. The idea of losing my own mother rattles me with fear. I don’t know what I would do.”
Sharon puts her hand on my knee. “Honey, I coach people who are dealing with family members who are dying. That is my job.”
What a blessing to have met you, I think, but I am beyond words.
The Midwife of Death offers her advice: “You come to a point in the process where the road forks and you have two choices. You can go, Oh my god, I don’t know how to do this, and completely freak out. You could let yourself be guided by fear.” Sharon’s calmness is a balm. Slowly my breathing starts to settle.
“Or,” Sharon continues, “you can just show up. Just be there. Be there in love. Say: this is a person I loved. Say: I will be present. My wish for you, Devi––and I would never wish death on anyone––but my wish is that there will be someone there with you in those moments who has dealt with it before. A leader to follow.”
I look around at the empty hospital bed, its sheets pressed and clean. How many people have died here, in this room?
I give myself permission to feel the weight of the unknown, permission to be the whole of my unprepared self.
Sharon waits outside the hospital room while I wash my face in the adjacent bathroom. The cool water brings me back into my body, somewhat. I follow her down the hallway, a tunnel of air conditioning, past nurses and doctors and cancer patients. Sharon punches the elevator button for the main floor and we descend.
“Well, maybe enough story collecting for a day?” she smiles, gentle. “That one really punched you in the gut.”
“Well, it’s not the first time I’ve cried this month.” I manage to laugh at myself, hollow.
“This month? How about this day?” she nudges my arm and I step one more layer back into my body. We laugh.
Sharon goes to buy a soda from the vending machine. We retreat into an inner hallway of the first floor where her office sits: a windowless, crunched space full of papers. Sharon offers me a seat on the purple couch and I accept, grateful to be still.
“Oh, and one more thing,” Sharon states between sips of cola. “When you’re editing the audio, really go into it with your heart. Open yourself to the material and ask, what is this story trying to say? Use the storyteller as your guide.”
She pauses for another sip before continuing: “Part of listening is paying attention to your emotional reaction. Let yourself be changed by the process. The greatest learning will come when you say: I want to be different than I was at the beginning of this journey as a result of seeing it through.
“Otherwise,” Sharon sighs, “you’re just playing with sounds, not showing up with your real self. It’s a great gamble, this life. We spin ourselves in without knowing what’s going to happen.
“Oh! That reminds me,” she exclaims, a spark of energy always humming under her speech, “I want to give you this.”
Sharon retrieves an orange, plastic dreidel from the inside the pocket of her sweater. “With a dreidel, like in life, you have no control. You have to enter into the mystery and take your chances.”
I can’t help but smile at the gesture, the tears of upstairs now dried on my cheeks. Sharon closes her eyes for a moment to bless the object before she passes it into my hands. It is small but larger than itself. She could not have known that orange is my favorite color. I press the object into my own pocket.
“Keep on fighting the good fight,” I say, thankful.
“No, I’m not a fighter,” Sharon counters. “I’m not about words to do with battle. I’m into magic. I’m a big soap bubble.”
“A soap bubble? Well, blow good bubbles,” I manage, smiling.
“Alright,” she says, warmth once again spreading across her face.
I part ways with the Midwife of Death at the door to her office. Part of me is certain that we will never see each other again.