Growing up in The Bahamas as the daughter of Abaco’s island doctor, I came to see death as an intrinsic part of life. It was a subject that was discussed both respectfully and fearlessly in our home. In such a small place, where everyone was acquainted, we all knew whose family had been touched by death’s cold hand. I became acutely aware of my father’s feelings when he cared for a dying patient. These were people he had looked after for years. These were the children he had delivered into the world; the mothers who laughed and cried when they first saw their newborn babies; the fathers who worked hard fishing, farming or building businesses to support those they loved. He hated to see anyone suffer; although his patience ran thin with those who drove up the hill, honking their horns and complaining of headaches that had plagued them for two days or more, just as we were sitting down to dinner. Then, his temper would flare, but thankfully, his angry tirades were in German, so the infirm could not understand a word. Sometimes, if I recognized the car in our driveway, I would race down the stairs and whisper to the person holding their head,
‘Don’t say that you’ve had the headache for two days!’
‘Why not?’ they would ask, bleary-eyed. ’Then Doc will think I’ve been suffering for a long time, and he won’t mind me bothering him.’
‘No! He’ll just think you're silly for showing up now, at dinner, and not at his office earlier during the day!’
‘Oh! I understand. Thanks for the hint.’
On the other hand, Doc never complained about having to visit someone who was dying. His compassion for human suffering ran deep, and his personal Hippocratic Oath to make transitions as comfortable as possible, was held close to his heart. Watching him work, I learned a great deal about life and death. Perhaps my only regret in this life is the fact that I did not follow in his footsteps, and become a doctor too.
Remembering times I was in his presence as he worked, I recall two instances which had a tremendous impact on my life and views on dying. For human beings, the question of death is a gripping one—what is death? Why does it happen? As a child, I grappled with these thoughts, trying to solve the insolvable. I read books beyond my years, like The Holy Bible and The Tibetan Book of the Dead, searching for answers. Some innate part of me recognized, even at a tender age, that the physical body is infused with something greater, something alive yet invisible. I wanted to believe that death was not the end, but simply a shift from one realm to another. Most likely, these reflections are what ultimately led me to become a healer, someone who walks the threshold between the physical and spiritual worlds.
One day when I was ten years old, I happened to be in my father’s medical clinic, helping him count out tablets. I loved this task because I could be in the same room with him, listening and learning as he talked to patients about their various ailments. Usually, the waiting room outside was packed with sixty or seventy sick people, some of whom had journeyed for hours from settlements in the north, like Crown Haven or small villages in the south, like Sandy Point. I felt accomplished that day, because he had shown me how to insert a sheet of x-ray film into the large, black metal casing, a job which had to be completed in total darkness, so that the film would not be exposed. As I exited the small dark room holding the cold casing in my arms, I heard loud banging on the side door. Someone was shouting,
‘Doc! Open the door! Help me, Doc! My boy is dying! Oh Jesus! My boy is dying!’
My father flung open the door, and a man rushed in holding a young boy in his arms, followed by a woman whom I recognized as my close friend’s older sister. The child was quickly placed on the operating table, which stood in the middle of the floor. The tension and dread running through that room were palpable. It is an unforgettable sensation, this standing on the brink of death, mutely witnessing the outcome. The child’s little face was streaked in deathly blues and grays, and from the man’s panicked words, I gathered that his son had been standing close to a gasoline truck, inhaling the poisonous fumes. Overcome by the deadly toxins, the child had toppled forward, his face near the gasoline. No one had seen him fall.
As the man spoke, my father worked in silence, his arms pumping the tiny chest, his lips trying to breathe life into the slack body. Time stood still. Right then, I saw how untimely death can be, and yet, how timeless its presence remains in our lives. I don’t know how long I stood watching, locked between the two worlds of existence, but at some point, my father stopped.
Anxiously I whispered,
‘Papi, don’t stop! If you keep working, you can still save him!’
While he worked, I felt there was still hope; but I knew that if he stopped, death would have won. That terrified me. It left me trembling and enormously empty. I was afraid to see one so young, so innocent, pass through death’s door.
My father stood up, gathering the lifeless body in his arms. I looked into his eyes, deathly serious, the pupils contracted by the gravity of the words he was about to deliver. There was no blood, only the faint smell of invisible gas permeating the air.
Looking directly at the mother, he said,
‘Molly, my darling, I am so sorry. There is nothing more I can do. He’s gone.’
Molly’s mouth opened. At first there was no sound, only the silence in that grief-stricken space, when the world stops turning. Then, a scream; a scream so primal, that my hair stood on end. It is a sound I shall never forget; one of infinite anguish. The piercing cry of every mother who knows this loss. Overcome by a feeling of utter helplessness, I wept too, knowing that nothing could ever fill the abyss of her pain.
A profound silence stayed with me for days. I felt both awed and frightened by the face of death. I struggled inwardly with the overwhelming images I had witnessed, and was struck by the monumental fact that I, too, would die. I wondered how my death would occur. What part of me, if any, would survive this dissolution of the body? Where would I go when my breathing stopped? How was I to live, so that I could die fearlessly? I took to climbing up the high wall beside the house, and sitting with the tiny sugar ants, yellowbirds and passion flowers, I gazed out over the ocean, trying to ascertain what life was about, contemplating my many questions.
My father must have noticed the change in me, and some time later he asked me to accompany him on a house call. I loved going with him in the old Mercedes which smelled of leather, and seeing his worn medical satchel in its place of honour on the back seat. I thought it was a clever case, the way it opened up, the two sides folding out, the little compartments filled with injections, vials, pills, a stethoscope, tourniquets, bandages, and whatever else he needed. I felt important when he allowed me to carry it.
Driving along Bay Street near the sea, he spoke softly.
‘I see that you have been troubled by the death of Molly’s boy. To witness someone young taken so abruptly is very hard. Even for me, as a doctor who deals with such things, I find myself asking the eternal question, why? I have no answers for you. Only to say that birth and death are part of life. But today I want to show you that death has other ways of taking us.’
‘Who are we going to see?’ I asked nervously, not wanting to see anyone else die.
‘Everything will be all right.’ he said reassuringly. ‘Just come with me.’
We climbed out of the car. I clutched the medicine bag, the weight of it giving me a sense of security. Whatever my father needed to save someone would be in this satchel. Slowly, we mounted the smooth clean steps leading to the front door of an old wooden house. The bright yellow paint was cracked where the sun and tropical winds had ravaged the walls, but in the garden, red hibiscus and angel trumpets bloomed triumphantly.
‘Mrs Archer lives here,’ Doc said quietly, as he walked into the house, and steered me past several women respectfully praying outside the door of a dimly lit bedroom. Inside, when my eyes became accustomed to the darkness, I could see the thin body of a black Bahamian woman curled up on a large bed. Her rich dark hair, laced with gray, fanned the pillow. Her eyes fluttered open immediately, as though she had been waiting for my father. Then looking over at me, she smiled and beckoned me to sit beside her.
‘Dis your daughter, Doc?’ she asked weakly. ’I is so glad I get to meet her before I go. Listen,’ she said in a whisper, so that I had to lean forward to hear her, ‘your Daddy done so much good for me, so much good for de people in Abaco. He stayed wid my husband when he die, he bring all my gran’children into dis world, and I done tell him before I leave dis world, I want to see him one mo’ time.’
Turning to my father, a slow smile lit up her sunken cheeks.
‘Doc, I done told you I want you to hold my hand when I cross over.’
Some images remain imprinted in our minds as beautiful photographs. That day, when my fathers strong white fingers grasped Mrs Archer’s wrinkled brown hand, I knew the communion that can happen in death between all people, regardless of colour, creed, age or anything else. The sacred bond between us all is our humanity. From behind eyes as deep as wells, she murmured,
‘Doc, I is so happy to be goin’ home. I want to see my loved ones, all dem who gone before me. I know dey is waitin’ for my chariot. And, when I see my sweet Jesus I goin’ tell Him about de good doctor in Abaco. But I sure he already know who you is.’
Placing her other hand on a worn Bible beside her, she softly echoed the verse,
‘I am the resurrection and the life. He that believeth in me though he were dead, yet shall he live. And whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die.’
With that, her voice faded into nothing, and she took one last breath, as though she were inhaling all the sweet memories of her time on earth, carrying them with her forever, on infinite wings made of air. The only sound remaining was the gentle wailing of the women holding vigil outside her door, mourning the loss of their mother, sister, friend; all the while trusting that their songs of separation and love would be the chorus lifting her onwards, on this part of her journey.
I left that house with the gift of grace. I knew that I had been granted a direct experience of peaceful surrender into something far beyond my childish imagination. In that room, with my father and that old dying woman, I saw that death can also be a letting go, an opportunity for liberation from that which we so firmly grasp in this world. Briefly, I glimpsed the possibility of a luminous union with God, whatever that vastness is, and I felt endowed with a certainty that there is no such thing as nothingness.