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  • Writer's pictureGalen Warden

What is Life?

Updated: Aug 9, 2023

We were all called to the hospital. My father-in-law, a physician, was going to die very soon. He had nine children and most were married. I came. He approached his own death like the erudite physician and researcher he was. He told us every detail of his experience, in real time, as he lay there at the juncture of his life and his death. It was so riveting that it has never faded from my memory. Both his eagerness to share as well as the experience he shared. He told us that his brain was not receiving enough oxygen and his memories had become confused with his perception of the present.

“I know I’m in this hospital room here with you. But I don’t see you. I’m actually seeing and hearing something that happened when I was a boy at Princeton. Instead of being here, my mind is telling me I’m in a specific moment in the cafeteria at Princeton with my classmates. We have just finished eating and we all get up to head toward the door. There are four of us and the only thing I can think about, as we walk toward the big double doors, is “Who is going to reach out and push the door open?” That’s all I can think about right now. I see the doors, I feel my friends around me, I hear the noise in the cafeteria. It’s more real to me than this room, although I know for a fact that I am here, here with you.”

He continued to tell the experience as it was unfolding.

“We get right up to the big double doors and Henry is reaching out now. He’s walking next to me so I see his hand reaching out. He pushes the big wooden door in front of us and it swings out. We all walk through it; we’re leaving the cafeteria together.

Later, when he was just about to die, he told us that his heart was very weak, and he would not last much longer. He didn’t want to flounder there for an unknown length of time, so he said this:

“I’m going to kiss my wife on the cheek and say goodbye. Then I’m going to ask the nurse to raise my bed. When my head is raised above my heart, my heart will not be able to pump enough blood to my brain and I will die.”

He then asked my mother-in-law to come to him. She leaned down and he told her he loved her. She kissed his cheek. Then, very calmly, he asked the nurse to please raise his bed, and in less than five seconds he passed away. I saw the flush drain from his face. The nurse lowered his bed again, and there he was, a man I’d known for twenty years, motionless and as pale as paper. Life was unmistakably gone from him. I don’t know how, in movies, characters can ever question, Are they still alive? All it took was to see his face, no need to check anything. Death looked nothing like sleeping. There was no Life there.

Overwhelmed with emotion I left the hospital, floated to the parking lot, and started my drive home. One of the most remarkable experiences of my life was driving past strangers on sidewalks on that ride home.

Every human being––every age, size, shape, color, status, demeanor––had the same thing in common, and it outshined every difference among them. They glowed. They had Life! I saw Life in every one of them. It was startling and glorious. It was diamonds, fireworks, the force of Old Faithful and the power of Angel Falls. Life was, suddenly, everything and the only human quality that mattered.

Just hours before I had a very casual, presumptive relationship with Life. In moments, my awareness had transformed, and Life became the only light I could see. Not status, clothes, cars, or education. There were no physical trappings that could compete with the glory of breathing in and out. Every human body I saw glowed, shone, and radiated Life.

That spark of life is not amplified by activity. It is there or it is gone. The quiet senior, sitting as still as his bench, shone as brightly to me as the jogger fighting inertia with all her might.

Now my son, my beautiful boy, teeters at the juxtaposition of life and a living death. “What is my life worth?” He asks. “Why am I still alive?” He repeats it many, many times over the three years he’s been confined to one bed in one room with no ability to do or be all of the many, hopeful things that comprised his life a few short years ago. He’s 34, pondering, during the innumerable solitary hours of nights and days, “Is this life?”

Knowing the finality of Death—how it vacates hope, abandons dreams, and betrays love—these are the things I hold for him when his will is weak. I offer no platitudes or empty promises. His sacred mind cannot tolerate conversations without physical pain. I let the food I cook with love, the brief, light shoulder rub, the respect of being quiet in his room, speak for me. And I see Life when I look at him. Not uselessness. Not poverty of action and accomplishment.

I see life, and it’s shining like diamonds.

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