“You’ve been so brave.”
He could not speak. His eyes feasted on her, and he thought that he would like to stand and look at her forever, and that would be enough.
“You are nearly there,” said James. “Very close. We are. . . so proud of you.”
“Does it hurt?” The childish question had fallen from Harry’s lips before he could stop it.
“Dying? Not at all,” said Sirius. “Quicker and easier than falling asleep.”. . . He knew that they would not tell him to go, that it would have to be his decision.
“You’ll stay with me?”
“Until the very end,” said James. . . “We are a part of you . . . Invisible to anyone else.”
“Stay close to me” he said quietly.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, JK Rowling, 2007
Sirius, like so many fictional characters tells a truth that is not all truth. Within those lines is a profound truth, the truth of the duty the living owe the dying. The truth that we do not come into this world alone, and neither should we ever leave it alone. But, within the words is a lie. Sometimes, often, death hurts.
My son, born at 10:26 on December 10th, left sometime around 11. My son, who was with us for only half an hour, my son who died in the arms of his family, suffocated to death in those arms. Premature infants do not have surfactant in their lungs. They are unable to breathe. And when my son was born alive, in defiance of any one’s expectations, that lack of surfactant meant that he suffocated to death. He was a fish out of water, this babe out utero.
I gave him what I could, the shelter of my arms, the comfort of my songs, his family’s prayers. I gave him baptism, the living proof of my faith in the resurrection. I gave him not just the duty of the living to the dead, but every ounce of goodness and mercy I could pry from my broken body. I walked with him to the very end, I stood in that place of life and death while I could barely stand. I gave him primordial and fierce love as a bulwark because he had to go to a place that eventually I could not follow. I gave him love and tenderness as he suffocated because they were the only things I could give.
Almost a year after he died, I listened to the Deathly Hallows on audio book. Something in me broke. Something in me realized that my son died. Not just that my hopes and dreams were gone, but that like all mortal things, his body broken, he died. His heart stopped beating, oxygen stopped reaching his brain. A marvellous and intricate machine stopped working. My son, a person in his own right – not just the embodiment of our hopes and dreams – my son, his body stopped working in a horrific way.
I realized this, and then I hid from it. I could not bear the how right then, while I still struggled with the why. It was not a place I could go. The truth, the pain my tiny son felt – pain we could not remove – in dark and secret places, it crippled me. It ripped me asunder.
The why of death is relentless until you make your peace with it. The work of grieving is to bring the darkness into the light, to reconcile the irreconcilablewith truth and life. I have had many tasks in my grief, and this was only one more. It is not just the why I must reconcile, but the how. I must stand and perceive. I must accept what is unacceptable.
It has taken me three years to write this, to give voice to this last, terrible truth: my son, with a central nervous system, with neurons and pain receptors, fully human son, suffocated to death. My son, the person. My son, a creation of God. My son, who could, and almost certainly did, feel pain as he died. Creation has its own ruthlessness.
And all I have is that bulwark. All I have is this – that dying is a part of life. It is the end, even when that end comes much too soon. Sometimes, it hurts. And there is no antidote against the hurt. Sometimes passings are not easy and there is nothing we can do. My son’s passing cannot have been easy. There was nothing to be done differently.
This too is truth – measured against our breaths in that room are the breaths that Gabriel could not freely take.