“Here is my report for Gabriele Rico,” the email began. ”She is beautiful (I’m happy that I got to meet her) and she is dying.”
The kitchen of my mother’s house was quiet as I read, as if three little words had sucked the life out of it too. On the horizon, clouds pressed down on the rim of the Santa Clara Valley, the rain coming down softly enough to feel vaguely comforting. This death sentence, pronounced by Anya, an Eastern medicine practitioner who we all hoped could help, felt sharply disappointing. But I was not surprised; my mom seems at least half gone already, one of her girlish feet (not a broken blood vessel or freckle to be found!) planted firmly in the beyond and the other still here on earth. Gabriele is balanced precariously between something and nothing, an unfamiliar place that will either break my heart or make it stronger.
Eastern Medicine teaches that three components are essential to life: blood, qi, and essence. Blood is Western medicine’s equivalent to the organs–heart, liver kidneys etc.–and qi is the force exerted by those body parts at any given moment, the pulse or heartbeat for example. And essence? Western medicine has no direct corollary, but I would call it spirit, or soul–something everlasting that defines a human being beyond the physical self and is, in itself, death-less. In the silent kitchen, the cold from the floors creeping up through my bare feet and into my knees, I continued reading Anya’s assessment, which told me nothing I didn’t already know to be true.
“I have never treated a person who lives on essence only,” she wrote, detailing how there is no longer any trace of blood or qi in my mom’s pulse. ”Usually in this stage/progression of the disease essence is very deficient, but hers is not. Right before a person transcends from his/her body, all the available essence gives those last minutes of breath–but somehow Gabriele sustains her full life on it, and I think it may last for a little bit longer. Most of my young patients do not have half as much of this precious essence, even in a fairly health state.”
Truth: although my mom’s heart continues to beat, her skin smooth and warm to the touch, she is powered now only by her great, indestructible soul. But I must tell you another maddening truism: despite this miracle, the reality of this kind of slow death is brutal, the body creaking to a stop against its will. ”It is what it is,” sighs Gabriele in a moment when her drug-and pain-soaked mind is able to grasp what’s happening. ”I can feel a shifting of gears.” My mother looks as small and slight as a child in the flat, gray light. ”It’s not a boo-hoo or crying kind of shift,” she continues, “but a…” She falters, shrugging thin shoulders in a search for words, and I feel an urge to reach inside her physically and drag out the rest of the sentence, so badly do I want to know what or where she shifting to. But then her eyes flutter closed and she is asleep.
Where do we go when we are no longer here? Where do we end up when we get un-stuck from the space between something and nothing? I think it all has to do with essence. And so I will be able to find my mom in my sister’s faces and in the personalities of her grandchildren. She will be there in Rich’s sudden, quirky smile–one that lights up an otherwise reserved face that my mother loves dearly. And Gabriele has decided that when she dies, her spirit will infuse the right-hand star of Orion’s Belt, snuggled close to the middle one, which she has always felt was her mother watching from the heavens. All we need do, she says, is tilt back our heads and there she’ll be–blood-less, qi-less and death-less–shining in the collective essence of the night sky.