Have you ever watched something or someone die? We’ve all seen dead people and dead animals, but I mean being present at the very moment of death, the instant when the essence of a life departs from its body, a hand deftly and irrevocably withdrawn from the puppet it once animated.
I once watched a hummingbird die slowly over several minutes, its frantic breaths gradually transforming into shuddering, haltering gasps, ending finally in a prolonged, almost exaggerated exhale. This was of a whole different quality as witnessing the sudden – sometimes violent, sometimes public – deaths of animals. I was sitting in the front of a brown Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera as it powered roughly over a full-grown retriever that had made an impulsive choice which turned into the decision of a lifetime. It had been stranded in the grassy median of a six-lane road by its owner: she having jogged spritely across the road, turning back to encourage him along; it diving once, twice, into the road, each time startled back onto the median by the passing cars; she waving at it laughingly, calling out to it (You silly goon! Hop on over!); it taking a determined plunge into the narrow gap between our car and the car in front, it folding under the front bumper improbably, awkwardly, with a yelp sharply interrupted; me feeling the texture of its bones – breaking, skidding, dragging – under the floorboard, under my adolescent feet, too young to have been driving, too old to resist glancing surreptitiously back at the road (“Objects in mirror are closer than they appear…”); she screaming, screaming, kneeling, screaming, shaking, screaming; my mom, agape, noiseless, breathless, hand covering mouth, foot on gas, too late to stop, too horrified and ashamed to stop; me forcing my gaze away from the blood and the hair to the screaming, the incessant, choked screaming; we never speaking of this, not at the time, not ever.
Sudden, violent death leaves no room for reflection. I don’t even remember the dog’s color. (The girl, however, was blonde. That I know.) I recall the sensations and sounds of that day, but I feel nothing for the dog other than a vague undercurrent of guilt and inevitability.
The hummingbird’s death was, as I said, of a whole different quality. I was eating lunch in the quiet corner of a cafeteria at work, my table abutting a floor-to-ceiling window exposing the bright, mildly breezy day. In the middle of my meal, paying no particular attention to anyone, looking purposefully occupied with the deliberate chewing of my food, I heard a light, muffled tap on the window, as if a small marshmallow had been flung against it. I would not have noticed this but for my awkward idleness and the stillness around me.
An emerald hummingbird now lay on the cement footing at the base of the window. Its back was arched, its head yearning away from me, its neck exposed and delicately, almost imperceptibly, fluttering. There was none of the majesty of all the mid-flight photography I had seen of hummingbirds. Its wings rested against its side. It was not darting flower to flower, holding motionless in spurts as if the air itself was solid. The magic had gone. It breathed heavily like a sprinter just across the finish line, bent over, heaving, every breath fully in and fully out, his entirety pulsing as one large heart. The hummingbird’s breaths came faster than I would have believed plausible but for its size. Perhaps the same lightness that allowed for wings to beat fast enough to blur would permit gulps of air twice a second after all.
I looked at the hummingbird, the two of us each alone on his side of the glass, bound together by the awe of what was sure to come. Its breathing began to slow and stutter. What did it feel at that moment? Was there only pain, the kind of deafening, omnipresent pain that overwhelmed thought, demanded all attention? Or was the hummingbird possibly beyond feeling, enveloped in the kind of quiet solitude left by eardrums blown after an implacable crescendo?
The hummingbird’s breaths became shallow and sporadic, making it hard to decide where one ended and the next began. It seemed every shuddering exhalation could be its last. What was certain was that I would be the only witness of these final moments, moments within what I presumed was, until minutes before, a blissful, lighthearted life flitting nectar to nectar.
At this moment I swelled with an intimacy unexpected.
* * * * *
We typically grow close to others through sharing a lifetime of experiences. Familiarity seems almost prerequisite to intimacy.
There is however a frightening, awful intimacy that floods the void between strangers who share a terrible secret. Show me quickly before she comes back. Let’s kill it.
In these moments we recognize that the particular person with us is irrelevant. What matters is that someone – anyone – also knows what we dare not tell, what we will unavoidably recall at the most inopportune of times, what must always color and distort the way we see other experiences that remind us of this, the awesome, dreadful moment.
* * * * *
The hummingbird barely moved now, each of its breaths separated by increasingly long periods of stillness. Did it sense that I was right beyond the glass, close enough to touch it, powerless to save? I was about to witness one of only two experiences universally shared by the living. I opened my mouth to speak. I wanted to stand.
Stay. At last, the hummingbird kept its secret no longer. I am dying.
Its feathers moved subtly, spontaneously. The breeze could go on animating it, but to what purpose? This was no bird. This was a green marshmallow with a long protrusion thrown against glass.
I rose, moved it to a shaded corner under flowering rhododendrons, and went back to work.