Four minutes. It’s long enough to make a grilled cheese sandwich or sort a week’s worth of laundry. It’s about the time given to a Little League pitcher for warm-up, before he tries his luck on the mound. It’s a stretch of short-lived tension that feels much longer to a teen driver attempting to parallel-park on a busy Boston street between piles of plowed snow. About four minutes lapses between the moment a new life takes her first breath, gets cleaned up, checked out, and is finally placed into a parent’s waiting arms.
And, apparently, four minutes is also the amount of time a human being can hear after her own death.
That’s what my professor said last evening during our Communication seminar. I’m sure he hoped I’d take more away from his three-hour lecture than this one sliver of information, but after he said it, I got lost in my own thoughts and didn’t absorb much else. I was already haunted by the fact that my mother was alone in the hospital when she died nine weeks earlier, as I’d opted to go home to my own bed that night rather than sleep on the standard-issue lounge chair in her room. But I’d since convinced myself that, in those remaining hours after I left her, she was incoherent and unaware. Just one of those little lies we tell to make ourselves, or others, feel better. Like when friends said the dying often wait until their loved ones leave the room before they “let go,” or when a nurse told me my mother was being kept “comfortable,” or when the doctor called later to report my mom had passed “peacefully.” Maybe it was due to my own inexperience, never having been so intimately entangled with the death process before, but nothing about it appeared planned or painless or peaceful. My mother seemed disjointed on her last day, addled—her mind and body out of sync and overwhelmed—as chaotic as when a baby first enters this world, struggling to make sense of a completely foreign encounter.
I drove straight home after class and researched my professor’s claim; whether I hoped to debunk it or affirm it I’m not sure, but I found no definitive answer. The levels of consciousness a person undergoes between the point of clinical death and the cessation of all brain activity are still under debate. However, reports from patients resuscitated after cardiac arrest or respiratory failure indicate there is at least some level of awareness within that critical interlude, and it is widely believed among those who work with the dying that auditory function is the last to surrender. Particularly in a case like my mother’s, where the patient is undergoing a natural death, unaltered by medication or sudden physical trauma, it seems reasonable to believe there is a sequence in the descent, an order to the expiration.
Mom was an unwilling participant in this process. Just a few days before her death, she’d warned the doctors not to give up on her, declaring that she would live to see her only granddaughter graduate from high school. I have no doubt she fought until the very end, resisting the inevitable with whatever residual strength and clarity she could conjure. Now, after my professor’s cursory revelation, I wonder if my mother heard her own death pronounced, the exact time of her last breath called out. I wonder what the nurses or doctors said in those few minutes. Did they know that she might hear them?
I’m a logical, literal thinker. I don’t accept the notion that the dying “wait” until visitors leave, but rather a person’s organs simply fail when they fail. And though it would have made this loss infinitely easier, I didn’t presume my mother was headed into the embrace of some benevolent, all powerful being who resides in paradise. As George Bernard Shaw said, “The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.”
However, these personal beliefs, or lack of them, didn’t prevent me from whispering in my mother’s ear before I left her that final night, “It’ll all be okay, Mom. I’ll take care of Dad.”
Four minutes. To hear your life declared over, your time here finished, and to reflect upon what that means. I can no more imagine that than I can know what a newborn feels when her lungs first fill with air. Regardless of how cognitively aware the infant is before her emergence from the watery safety of the womb, or the grown woman might be as she departs this sensory-laden external world, those brief moments still mark the most consciousness-altering shifts we, as humans, will ever make. Despite where I stand on science versus spirituality, having now served as participant in birth and observer of death at various points in my life, it’s impossible not to wonder if those of us currently residing between the peaks of this inescapable, ceaseless cycle, who bear witness to the arrival and departure of family and friends again and again, are not truly the ones in transition.