I once watched a doctor hold my newborn son upside down by the ankles and give him a shake.
I was shocked.
What? You can do that to a baby?
Because up until that moment I was under the impression that babies were incredibly fragile, like a high-grade combination of porcelain and glass. But the doctor handled him when he first entered the world like he was made of rubber. He did this, I quickly learned, for a very specific reason: He was trying to help my son take his first breath. Because if you don’t take a breath in those first few seconds when you arrive, you have a very, very serious problem.
And so my boy in all his shiny pink glory hung there, upside down, with strange liquids exiting his various orifices, and then he coughed and gasped and took his first breath.
Remembering that day takes me to another day, this one a decade later. It was a Friday night, August 22, 2008, and my family and I were visiting my grandma Eileen. My grandma and I had been great friends since I was young. When I was in my late twenties and early thirties, she and I had lunch together every Friday for a decade. We, as they say, rolled deep.
But when we went to visit her that evening in August, everything was different. She was in her mid-eighties and her health had been declining over the past year and she’d been moved to a different part of the nursing home where she lived. We knew we were getting close to the end, but I still wasn’t expecting what we experienced when we entered her room. She was lying in bed, her eyes closed, taking long, slow breaths, but something about her was absent.
It was like she was in the room, but not in the room. Here, but already gone.
If you’ve ever been in the room with someone who is dying, you know exactly what I’m talking about. There’s a physical body right there in front of you, but something’s missing. Spirit, soul, presence, essence—whatever words you use for it, there’s a startling vacancy you feel in being with someone you’ve been with so many times before and yet that person isn’t there anymore.
I froze in the doorway, watching her lying on the bed, as it began to sink in that she was at the end of her life. You know someone is going to die because you know we’re all going to die—you know it in your brain. But then there’s a moment when that truth drops from your brain to your heart, like an elevator in free fall, and lands with a thud.
My wife Kristen, however, walked right over to the bed, sat down next to Grandma, took Grandma’s hands in her own, and leaned in over her heart and began to speak to her:
Grandma, we’re here with you now. We see that you’re going to be leaving us soon. We love you and we have loved being with you all these years and now we’re letting you go…
It was so moving.
We spent a few hours with Grandma that evening, and then we left and within a few hours she died.
There is a moment when you arrive and you take your first breath, and then there is a moment when you take your last breath and you leave.
For thousands of years humans have been aware that our lives intimately and ultimately depend on our breath, which is a physical reflection of a deeper, unseen reality. It isn’t just breath we’re each given—it’s life itself.
Before anything else can be said about you, you have received a gift. God/the universe/ultimate reality/being itself—whatever word you want to use for source—has given you life.
Are you breathing?
Are you here?
Did you just take a breath?
Are you about to take another?
Do you have a habit of regularly doing this?
Whatever else has happened in your life—failure, pain, heartache, abuse, loss—the first thing that can be said about you is that you have received a gift.
Often you’ll meet people who have long lists of ways they’ve been slighted, reasons the universe has been unfair to them, times they got the short end of the stick or were dealt a bad hand of cards.
While we grieve and feel and lament and express whatever it is that is brewing within us, a truth courses through the veins of all our bumps and bruises, and it is this: We have received.
and you have received a gift, a generous, extraordinary, mysterious, inexplicable