I used to love this job. Getting to be with someone as they slipped from this world to the next was a moment almost as sacred as birth. Often I held their hand while the warmth of life seeped away and the cold of death snuck in. I was the last person they saw. I told them they weren't forgotten. I was a reminder that this was not the end.
I no longer love this job.
Well... that's not true. My appreciation for the post comes and goes in waves. I understand the importance of it-- no one should die alone. But people don't always get why we're there. Some plead for more time. Others cling to denial and refuse to accept that their body and spirit are no longer united. I thank my Boss for the ones that accept readily the call to progress in the next life. The accepting ones, however, seemed few and far between these days. And the pleadings were taking their toll on me. He always knew when it was getting to be too much before I did. I only realized it when the assignments came less frequently. I appreciated the breaks. Hmmm... break isn't the right word. Even if I wasn't handling any death assignments, I still had the cases on my mind. I'm horrible at keeping work at work and bringing it home with me. Some of those spirits just stick with you. I could hear their final requests bouncing around my brain, some that I could fulfill, some that I couldn't. Sometimes I would receive an assignment TO fulfill a request of one of my "dearly departed"s. That was rare. Usually I just thought about them on my time off. Yes, like I said earlier, I tend to take work home with me.
Or work follows me home. Like Benjamin.
Benjamin Holden was a fit young man with big green eyes and dirty blond hair. The way he lived his life-- eating healthy, working out, voted at every election, great balance between work and home life-- would never have indicated an early death. he treated most people with blind kindness and strove to live what he declared to believe. The biggest offenses he ever committed were paying too much for French suits (though they did compliment his slim figure so well) and pissing off his parents by marrying an American-born Chinese girl (named Alice) with crazy parents. In all reality, Benjamin was an outstanding guy. And a huge pain in my big round rear.
I stopped asking why certain people had to die and when (especially children) years before I assigned Benjamin's case. Luckily for me he had such faith in life that me showing up after he was mugged didn't make him plead for more time. As blood steadily pumped out the fatal knife wound, his giant green eyes locked mine, full of compassion and acceptance. Good, I said to myself. This one'll be easy.
"I don't imagine you'll tell me why," were the first words he spoke to me in his soft baritone voice.
"I don't think you really care at this point, do you?" I replied.
He shook his head and a small smile creeped onto his generous mouth. "No. Not really." He laughed softly which caused him to wince in pain. As he moved his hand to the slice in his abdomen he spoke again. "Any suggestions for great last words?"
His question caught me off guard. I'd never thought about that. I pondered the many final phrases uttered to me during the past centuries, but none seemed to fit. I stalled my response by climbing over garbage sacks in my black pencil skirt and white stilettos to reach my ward. The stench didn't bother me at all. I knew at this point Benjamin was beyond noticing the rank smells of an obscure alley way.
"You could recite the Gettysburg address," I suggested. I don't know why I did that. I just did. "Or maybe another famous quote."
"That seems rather unoriginal," he replied. His voice was weaker this time. yes-- his end approached.
"A popular one is 'tell JoAnne I love her!' or something like that."
It was here.
"Yes, that would be appropriate. But I know there is not doubt in Alice's mind that I love her." Wince. Pain shoots through his eyes for a brief instant. Quickly, peace replaces it. "I made sure of that," he finishes.
And just like that, his body dies.
Every time I'm with a person when their body and spirit seperates I experience an instant where time stands still. I take in every detail of the environment, making mental record the event. Someone should remember this. So I do. I breathe in the air heavy with rot. My eyes memorize every brick mortared into the surrounding walls. And my skin... it dimples as the cold damp moisture of dusk sets in. This is what it was like the moment Benjamin Holden died.
"Well... that was fast, wasn't it?"
I exit my trance and regard my ward. He brushed off imaginary dust from his impeccable grey suit. After straightening his jacket, he looked up at me brightly and smiled.
"Yeah. You're pretty lucky. I've seen much worse."
"Lord, I bet you have," he replied absentmindedly as he searched his pockets for an unknown object. When a person dies, there is a bit of a limbo between death and passage in the spirit world. During this limbo, a spirit version of their clothing and all the belongings on them are all they have. So whatever Benjamin found would only last till we crossed the veil. He looked with a purpose, cleaning out every pocket meticulously until he found what he was looking for. "I wasn't expecting the attire to be business dress," he stated all while shoving his hands around his suit.
"Excuse me?" I replied.
"You know... I just figured the Angel of Death would wear, I dunno, a black robe. Or maybe a white robe. Obviously some kind of robe." Stopping his search a moment to look up, his eyes ran up and down my figure. "The silk shirt and pinstripe skirt just surprised me that's all." He resumed his quest to find the unknown treasure.
"Robes haven't been my thing for a while. And I'm not the Angel of Death," I informed him.
"Ahhh, there you are," he murmured, pulling a small paper clip out of his inside breast pocket. Grasping it tightly between the thumb and index finger of his right hand, he looked up at me expectantly. "Soooo.... now what?"
I pulled a small slip of paper from my clutch. Waving it in the air I said, "I'm supposed to take you to say goodbye to Alice. Then we're off to the Spirit World."
I sighed. "Yes. She's been assigned a case worker, so I think this goodbye is more for her than for you."
He thought for a moment. Shrugging, he smiled and said, "Okay! I can't honestly say this bums me out! What a cool gig you have, Not-Angel-of-Death."
You don't realize how rare of an assignment this is, I thought. And I'm not the Angel of Death. I reached forward and grabbed Benjamin's hand. It was slightly smaller than I expected, but I didn't give it too much thought. "Hold on," I ordered. "You're about to go for a bumpy ride."
I reflected on my past few days as we travelled through time and space to Alice and Benjamin's Brooklyn apartment. I say time because when an assignment is given to have a ward bid farewell to a loved one, the moment their spirit leaves the body, time slows to an imperceptibly sluggish rate. This happens to allow a ward and his case worker to travel nearly instantaneously to the loved one. I'm sure you've heard stories of people who wake up suddenly and feel a loss, long before they even know about the death. Well, that's usually because one of us has taken a recently departed to say goodbye. The ability travel at such a snail's pace makes this possible As I was saying, I was reflecting on my past few days. I had just wrapped up a child abuse case in which the mother had to be made aware of what was happening in her home. Sometimes people just don't notice what's going on right under their noses, so my Boss assigns one of us to give them a little... hint, you could say. Before the Mallory case, I was working on a group of hikers that got lost and needed support through the night until the rescuers came. When I got home the morning after that, Hall told me he had an interesting assignment. What was that assignment? I can't remember what he was telling me, I was too preoccupied with the grocery list. Goodness, I wish that man could learn how to restock a pantry... after thirty years you'd think he'd have figured out--
We were there.
The bedroom was small, but clean. Impeccably well organized also. The color scheme was monochromatic: black bedskirt, furnishings and window treatments, with white duvet covers and walls. Alice was asleep under the crumpled comforter, curled up in the fetal position, holding a pillow to her chest. At first her positioning made me slightly nervous. Then I noticed that Benjamin was smiling in a rueful way.
"She used to wad the blankets up and pull them up to her chest like that. I broke her of the habit by suggesting an overly large pillow," he informed me, stepping over to the bed then lightly sitting on the edge. Gingerly he brushed her bangs from her forehead.
"Got cold at night did you?"
He laughed. "Yeah. I didn't appreciate the nightly theft."
She shifted a little in her sleep when he laughed. Her movement reminded me of the time constraint.
"Benjamin, now is the time to tell her whatever you think she should hear."
For the first time since I'd met him I saw fear cross his face. It passed quickly of course; I'll never forget it was there, though. It possessed him entirely. Only fear for someone else could seize a person like that.
You could tell he was thinking as hard and as fast as he could because his pupils raced back and forth between the walls. As if the answer was written upon them. No, Benjamin. The answer is in your relationship, not on the walls. I allowed him another thirty seconds (well, thirty of MY seconds) before I told him again that we soon needed to leave. And then, as if by magic, the answer came. He leaned close and whispered in her ear in a barely audible tone:
"Don't stop living, Alice. Don't let your life stop here and now."
She stirred again.
"Love again. Find someone new to take care of you. You should never be alone, my whirly-girl."
Her eyelids started to flutter. Time was starting to pick up its pace.
"Benjamin, we need to leave. Now."
He looked up at me. Another first happened: I saw sadness.
"She'll want to die. She doesn't do well with loss." His intense and sincere concern pulled made my heart stop, just like every heartfelt comment made did. But I knew better than to let him continue his conversation with her. If she saw him when she woke up, it might make her cling to his spirit, constantly seeking ways to be in contact with him and avoiding her own progression. I took two steps towards Benjamin and laid my hand softly on his arm.
"It's time," I said much more calmly than I actually felt. He nodded.
"I just want to tuck her in."
I knew I should have stopped him, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. He'd been so compliant this whole time, I figured I could afford a little of my Boss's wrath and keep time moving slow enough for him to finish his goodbye.
He pulled the white blankets up around her face, framing her olive skin and jet black hair like a heavenly cloud. She did look beautifully peaceful in that moment. His final act was to pull away the comfort pillow, and turn her onto her back.
That's when I saw it.
The tiniest hint of a glow coming from her core.
I grabbed Benjamin's arm again, this time my grip was much tighter.
"Time's up," I told him. I tried to pull him away from her, but he had also noticed the glow and had become fixated on it.
"What is that?" he asked, staring at the pale blue light emanating from Alice's abdomen. "Do you know what that is?" Upon hearing his voice, Alice stirred again. Dang it, she was going to wake up if he talked again!
"Now, Benjamin! We need to leave now!" The urgency in my heart must have seeped out into my voice, because Benjamin looked at me with alarm.
"Tell me what it is," he demanded.
Her eyelids began to flutter.
"It's your baby," I said. "Let's go."
And with that, I transported us out of that room, and to the entrance of the Spirit World. But before I got us out of there, Benjamin whispered, "It is?"
I hadn't lied to him. I just didn't have the time to explain that not only was it a baby, but that faint glow meant that THAT bun had just been put in the oven. As in, within the last 48 hours. Right before Benjamin John Holden died, he created a body for a new spirit. For a daughter.
Her name was going to be Michayla.