When they take their last breath – a reflection on that singular moment.

Today I was with friends when they had to put their beloved dog down. Memories flooded back of occasions when I was with loved ones—family members, friends, and pets—at the point they took their last breath. 

That moment of a last breath is as replete with mystery as is the moment of a first breath when a new life enters the world.

I do not expect ever to be able to comprehend its potency as long as I live which is of course stating the obvious. None of us on this side of death’s door can appreciate what it is like to walk through it, never to return. 

We understand the physiology and science can explain some of the neurobiology.

But such explanations are woefully inadequate for me.

Two months ago, I held our cat as the vet injected him to relieve him of the pain from pancreatic cancer that was ravaging his little body. At one moment before the injection, Simon was breathing. He was alive. He was Simon. Two minutes later, he was not. Neither alive nor my Simon. Only an inert though soft and familiar body.

Two years ago, I sat beside Bill my long-time lover holding his hand as his breathing peaked in sharp erratic bursts, then slowed to quiet measured intakes and exhales, and then finally stopped altogether. That moment at 10:30pm on a Sunday evening occurred as he lay in a hospital bed in our living room sixteen days after he had been diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. The same cancer that felled Simon. At 10:29pm Bill was still with me. At 10:30pm he was no longer. How is that possible? To be here and then not to be here.

Over the previous two years, we went through the comparable moments of final breaths holding Bill’s mother’s hand, holding my father’s hand, and holding my mother’s hand.

Interpreting to where their spirits move after this world is the province of others wiser than I am and for times more contemplative than this. What transfixes me today, having just accompanied my friends as they lost a dog that was as significant in their lives as just about any other family member, is that final moment.

Though the moment when they took their last breath is beyond my comprehension, it is not beyond my experience. I lived that moment with those loved ones. And for that I thank God. Those singular moments are amongst the most treasured of my life.

* * *

My memoir “August Farewell” tells the story of the two weeks between my partner Bill’s diagnosis with pancreatic cancer and his death. Interspersed among the scenes are vignettes from our thirty-three years together as a gay couple.  

Information on “August Farewell” and on my novel “Searching for Gilead” is available on my website at http://DavidGHallman.com 

Both the memoir and the novel are available for order from your local bookseller or on-line retailers including http://amazon.com, http://barnesandnoble.com, http://amazon.ca, http://chapters.indigo.ca, http://amazon.co.uk

* * *

The photo below taken several years ago is of my partner Bill and our friends’ dog that had to be put to sleep today.

Pv_2008_051

 

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “When they take their last breath – a reflection on that singular moment.

  1. Jeff

    What a beautiful and tender post. I was with two of my loving cats, Maynard and Gabrielle; my sweet dog, Simba, and my partner, Rick. As heartbreaking as those moments were, I would never have missed being with them. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Donald and Ray

    We find it utterly amazing how Mr. Hallman can put into words our exact feelings and sentiments. He has such a grand sense. We have enjoyed his books as they are so enjoyable and tender to read. He certainly is a terrific writer. Just keep WRITING ! The world needs to read more of your words !

  3. I had a very similar experience a couple of years ago. My dog Roscoe died of cancer. We had the vet come to our house on the final day, and Roscoe died in bed surrounded by his family. I had my hand on his chest and felt his last heartbeat. Nursing him through his final illness was one of the most profound experiences of my life. It convinced me, for one thing, that animals understand much more about death and mortality than we give them credit for.

  4. Joan

    Dear David, how you bring up poignant memories! I’ve been with two cats, Rocky and Jesse, holding them as the vet put them "to sleep". It was calm and peaceful and while sad, was the best thing for them in their state of pain. In contrast, another cat, Ayla, died in the vet’s care while I was away, gasping and fighting for breath, with IV’s and technology trying to save her. Although I wasn’t there, I still have nightmares about that awful death. Not what any of us would wish for a loved one! I was with my Dad when he died as well – in hospital, but thankfully being allowed to breathe his last in peace. I think we have a lot to learn about our attitude towards death. Whether or not we think the person or the creature is continuing on somewhere, death does not have to be the frightening experience we often make it out to be. When it’s inevitable, we can make it easier or harder… our choice.

  5. Yvonne Stewart

    Beautiful and poignant. Thank you.

  6. TDMargaret

    Sadly we cannot stop those moments happening but it is a comfort to be there. I am just grateful I could be with my Mum, Dad and only Sister for their last moments. David, you have expressed it beautifully. xx

  7. Thanks, David, for a touching and enlightening post. I say enlightening because these kinds of singular moments remind us that, after all, life is made out of moments and that we do/should live life one moment at a time. Each one of them is important, although we may not realize it… until the powerful ones show themselves (and maybe it’s no surprise that the most important, powerful, life changing ones are the first and last moments in life; we first get to experience them through the first/last moments in the lives of our loved ones). Also, I do agree, we cannot run away from these singular moments. Rather, we have to survive them. In some strange way, no matter how powerfully dark and sad they are, they have the ability to enrich our souls and us, as humans (maybe it has something to do with ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ but I’m not quite sure…). In the process we can become better individuals ourselves. Your writing is powerful. Thanks so much for sharing!Alina PS: It was a pleasure meeting you in person at this year’s RBF! Can’t wait to read your book. Thanks again!

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