The Illusion of Breath

“Do you see it too? Sometimes it looks like he’s still breathing; we’re so used to seeing the motion that our eyes trick us into seeing an illusion of breath.”

My brother and I stood at the side of the bed where our father’s still body lay. Half an hour prior, our family had gathered to be with him as he drew his last breaths. The morning sun was shining through the shades, casting a warm glow around the room. After 61 years of struggling, our dad had finally finished his journey, and for what might have been the first time, he looked truly at peace.

The two of us hadn’t spoken much as we stood by the bedside, but I nodded my head in agreement with my brother. Every little movement in my dead father’s direction prompted me to look harder, to keep searching for that wisp of breath that could have been his. The natural rising and lowering of his chest was no longer there, but my eyes couldn’t seem to give up expecting it — as if somehow he’d suddenly wake up, gasping and flinging his eyes open like in the movies. But he didn’t.

July 25th, 2016 marked the end of a two-and-a-half-week long crisis in my family, though we never imagined it would happen so soon.

At the end of April, while I was still in China, I received an email from my parents notifying me that my father had been diagnosed with Stage II multiple myeloma, an incurable cancer of the bone marrow and blood plasma. At the time, he had manifested no outward symptoms of the disease, so we speculated he would have few more years with us at the very least. And for a good two months, he seemed perfectly fine.

But near the beginning of July, he began experiencing back pain that eventually confined him to his bed by the middle of the month. Initially we thought the injury was unrelated to the cancer, but after a week of no improvement, a visit to the emergency room revealed severe kidney failure that would have killed him had we waited a day longer.

He was admitted to the hospital on July 15, where several tests confirmed a metastasis of the myeloma to his spine, an indication of Stage IV cancer. His condition was deemed terminal and was given a prognosis of weeks to live. After spending six days in the hospital, we moved him home for his last five days on Earth.

There’s no good way to spin the loss of a loved one, yet there are always things to be learned from any circumstance. I’d like to say that I had adequate closure with my father, given I shared a room with him whenever I came home from college; and though my relationship with him was tenuous for a large part of my life, we were on friendly terms by the end (things tend to be more open when your dad becomes a Christian and is able to get over the fact that his son is gay).

It’s interesting: the morning after the death of the man who raised me, I expected to fall apart. I thought I would cry myself to sleep and emerge a smoldering puddle of emotional goo when I woke. But instead I’m sitting in the room he died in, writing coherently (hopefully) and listening to choral requiem music, without a tear to be seen.

Yes, I’m sad. But is that the prevailing emotion at the front of my mind? No. Instead, I’m filled with a strange sense of peace, despite the emptiness. More than anything, I feel as if I’ve run a long race with a friend — he’s moved on to a different leg of the race, and my role has finished. He’s free, and I can finally rest in the shared sense of freedom he worked so hard to give me.

Yet there will always be the illusion of breath. The little things that flit about the world he walked in, reflecting bits and pieces of the person he was, bubbling up memories of the experiences we shared together. The face I see every time I look in the mirror, carrying half his image, continuing to breathe as if he lives on in the people who loved him.

It’ll be hard to let go — I knew that. But at least now, in the spirit of my father’s pragmatism, it’s been easier than expected to keep moving forward. To smile knowing he lived the best life he could, and that he made it home safe.

I could have been a better son, that’s for sure, but there isn’t anything on Earth that can’t be improved. If there’s anything I wanted my dad to know before he left, it was that he should appreciate and learn from the past rather than regret it. We’re all doing the best we can with what we have, and we all make mistakes. I worked hard to model that for him — to let him know that I refuse to let regret tarnish our perfectly imperfect time together.

And though we continually strive to improve ourselves and the world around us, there comes a time when our work is taken from us, and we must rest. Like an artist who can no longer add to their creation, there is only so much we can say.

“It is finished. It is good.”

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