(This article is being published in the Anthology of the Military Writers Society of America this month.)
12 November 2007
Three years ago today, I held a man as he died. He was stretched out in the operating room like a crucified man, on his back, guts hanging out. I had overwhelming love for this man whom I had just met. I was exhausted from the war, embattled, depressed, and frustrated.
And yet I could see in the dark murky moments…a sense of light. Edward opened me up to a world I never knew existed. The tear which gently and remarkably escaped his closed eye was a prism of light that flooded my soul. Honestly, I still can’t find the words, thoughts, or song to express what happened, nor what is continually happening to my being.
As soon as this moment of love, joy, and sorrow broke into that operating room in Fallujah, Iraq, it seemed to slip out in a vanquished moment. How did I get there? Where did part of me go? I also left the room, and I continue to wait for the return of my mind, my spirit, my soul.
Part of me was killed in action without a trace. My friends and family still look into my eyes and search for the Ron who has yet to return home, and may never return.
Edward, the corpsman, the nurse, and I are still confined in that cramped little operating room that may no longer even physically exist. But it is there for me. Like a crime scene, the evidence of the destructive force of war and violence is waiting to be discovered and solved, or at least, to be compassionately closed and sealed forever.
Thank you, Edward, on the anniversary of your death and resurrection, for coursing through my eyes, my writing, my blood, and my soul.
I love you.
Go with God and with Jesus.
You have nothing to fear.
Love: a wonderful joy,
Peace, joy, love,
[Excerpted from A Tear in the Desert (2010) by Ron Camarda]
We begin and end independent life on this beautiful earth with a breath. Along the way, there are times when we literally lose our breath. The loss of breath can be the most joyful, scary, stunning, devastating, spiritual, or exhilarating mystery. People use the term, breathless, to express the inexpressible.
Experiencing the first breath of an infant is an awesome breath loss. But I also remember times when I was a young priest grieving with parents whose child never had a breath to lose. I was also present for William’s last breath at 7 years and Rebecca’s last breath at 8 years. What could I say? How would I cope? Those losses changed my relationship with their parents and my worldview forever. We were experiencing a horrible breath loss! We still are. Holding the last breath, literally and figuratively has become my gift, cross, passion, grief, and vocation.
When I was a boy of three or four years, before I could swim, I would hold my breath when I rode on the back of my father as he plunged beneath the surface of Lake Winnipesaukee. It was a death grip around his neck. If I tapped him on the back, he would surface immediately. I took pride in holding my breath longer than all my brothers and sisters. I was joyfully able to be breathless. But there are many times that we do not have that choice.
I remember the time my little brother and I took a trip to the Grand Canyon. After that incredibly long and sometimes contentious drive, Andy (12) and I (22) stood breathless at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Then I foolishly persuaded my brother to hike to the bottom and back in one day. As we started to make our way out of the canyon, I realized that he was in danger of dying. His belabored breathing terrified me. We literally crawled out long past sunset after gut-wrenching vomit, diarrhea, and lying in donkey dung. Another loss we endured was our dignity. That terrifying episode my brother and I endured has become our greatest gain and bond between us to this day.
When I was 40, I was present when my mother whispered, “I love you” to my father as she breathed her last breath. My mother could not eat anything for forty days before she died. She could not even take water the last week. Toward the end, as her prayer group serenaded her in the back yard, my mother complained to me that she was crying, but she had lost her ability to form tears. I still mourn the loss of her tears and breath. She could only breathe and whisper those last days, but something deeper was going on in her heart. Those breaths were so important and reverent! Loss of breath is part of the constant change in every human being’s journey. The last words formed by the last breath of all people are very important, if not the most important.
In his book, Helping Grieving People: When Tears Are Not Enough, Shep Jeffreys defines the exquisite witness as a person “who enters the sacred space between two human souls — having the deepest respect for the yearning, seeking, and wishful hopes of the other to diminish pain and survive in a new world after a loss.”
When Jesus of Nazareth, was dying on the cross, he could hardly breathe. The meaning of his life would be lost and meaningless if there had not been at least two exquisite witnesses to hear his final words and breaths. Among those exquisite witnesses was his mother. Not only did Jesus have to die a torturous death, but he had to helplessly watch his mother plunge into utter terror.
The last words of Jesus — “I thirst!” — are placed beside the crucifix wherever the Missionaries of Charity (founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta) serve. The power of those last words breathed by a dying man almost 2,000 years ago still motivate millions of people and me. I have prayed in those chapels just before witnessing the last breath of the poorest of the poor. My faith encourages me that the divine is present in all people, especially the dying, regardless of nationality, culture, or religious faith.
During my deployment to Iraq in 2004, I learned that Marines and Soldiers can have some really annoying and nasty habits. But when a person is dying, things change. I discover that even my irritation and annoyance melt and change to love. I do not think that we can ever learn enough about the complications and intricacies of loss and bereavement. For me, as a person and as a pastoral counselor, it will be an ongoing conversion both painful and joyful.
Many times, even in war, the breath seems to pour out of the person. I can almost see the loss of breath and soul just as I have seen the loss of blood. I did not believe that I was worthy to be a priest, never mind an exquisite witness. However, I have learned to recognize my gifts and foibles as a calling. In their book When Professionals Weep (2006), Katz and Johnson tell us that “Patients, their subjective experience of their own illnesses, their families, and their worlds — everything, in fact — is irrevocably changed with our entry into the helping relationship.”
When I am around the dying, I am naturally able to help people, to touch the living and the dead with meaning, moisten their lips, sing to them, hold hearts and hands, breathe with them, and say their goodbyes. When I enter their lives, I allow my life to be irrevocably changed.
Countless times throughout my life, and poignantly in Iraq, I have seen with my inner eye how a human soul detaches from the body and rises. Sometimes this loss of soul happens before the last breath and sometimes it happens long after the soldier violently dies in the battle or from a self-inflicted wound.
Sometimes I meet a human being for the first time at their last breaths. Most times I do not realize at the time of death the full impact of God’s need for me to witness the last breath. Later — when I am sharing their beloved’s story and their last breath — parents, family, and friends often surprise me with added meaning to what I thought was unimportant content. My love and care, like a spring that wells up, helps soothe the parched existence of the beloved dying, the beloved grieving, and those who will learn of the last breath of their beloved.
I am beginning to wonder if the many losses that we have, and continue to experience, in this life are preparing us for the loss of our last breath. Shep Jeffreys says often that all loss is like death. Those moments have caused me — and the people who listen to my stories — to be breathless and befuddled with the loss of breath.
I concluded my book, Tear in the Desert, with the letter that appears at the beginning of this article. It reinforces how we caregivers must be prepared to pitch our tent with the people who suffer devastating losses and bereavement. Compassion means “to suffer with.” I only knew Edward for his last tear and his last breaths in this world, but not a day goes by where his last breaths do not disturb my being.
Grieving my losses of breath throughout my life journey has indeed pushed me in new directions, and these directions have resulted in some good and some bad days…and an acknowledgement of my gift of loss.
Still breathless and still touched by my breath loss!
Father Ron Moses Camarda