After the Landowner’s body is taken away, I shift and drift out into the gardens of the hospice house. Water bubbles and sings as it flows over the rocks in the fountain. The sounds make a melody over the rhythm of the patients’ breathing inside the house. From here I can watch my fellow death presences as they float in and out of the rooms, checking on their spirits and greeting the team of comforting presences that stay in the home for the families and the staff.
We don’t often have the chance to watch one another work. When I see other spirits showing up, I know it means more than one death and work for all of us. We focus on the spirits whose departure has called us, so we have little time to turn and see others at work. Each of us tends the souls in our care in slightly different and beautiful ways and I feel pride in watching the others working in the house. I helped train each of them. There aren’t many left who have been making runs as long as I have, even fewer who have been doing it longer. I’m glad to see the traditions of our work and identity being honored by the presences inside the home today.
Giving myself this time to watch my peers and friends gives my mind time to think back over the past few months. I’ve been busy and generally don’t stop to reflect often. But I find this garden and the work of my friends invite me to spend some time contemplating. I think back over the spirits I’ve assisted and the places I’ve been. One face keeps reappearing: Anne, the doctor from Texas.
Sitting here opens my eyes to the reason she feels familiar to me. I’ve been surprised to see her face come to my mind in the runs I’ve made since the Salesman. This is very unusual for me and I find it a bit unsettling. I’ve never much remembered secondary people to my work- family members, yes, but not others. Watching my friends work from my view in the hospice house garden sent my mind back and it came together for me. She reminds me of Árdghal, one of the ancient ones and one of my mentors. He had the same empathy and shine in his eyes as Anne, something I’ve been missing.
Most of us make our runs with a sense of duty and care, understanding our vocation and purpose, but Árdghal approached it with strong compassion and a dedication unmatched by any other presence I have known. With passion he made his runs to every battlefield, every field of famine, every plague, determined that the souls should encounter something better, something more beautiful in this realm before passing on to the next. Redemption and resurrection were his mantras as he led us all to shepherd at the worst deaths humans could conjure up.
Side by side we worked Dachau for the duration of the humans’ second great war. Some spirits we grabbed before the SS officers even unloaded the trains. Others we followed for only a few hours as they were processed and marched directly to the horrific chambers. Still others we watched for weeks, months, even years, as their bodies nearly disappeared before their souls could escape.
Soon after Dachau opened, Árdghal and I followed the family of a clockmaker. Upon their arrival, Árdghal cradled the first soul of that family—an infant who died of fever within hours of being unloaded from the train. One by one we attended to nearly all nine of the family members, carrying away the mother, grandmother, and almost all of the children in turn.
The clockmaker himself was a strong and capable man. Together with his two sons he was put to work in the camps. The time came when he held each of his boys as they died, and watched their bodies being thrown on a wagon with the rest of the empty and expended shells. Árdghal would collapse after every one of his runs near the clockmaker. There was something about this man that Árdghal respected and admired. I think he saw in the clockmaker the same profound integrity and passion that burned inside himself.
Three weeks before that terrible war’s end, the clockmaker ran out of fire in his heart that pushed him to survive and the threads of his soul broke loose from his body. Árdghal insisted on making the run himself. I watched as he lovingly reached out to take the clockmaker’s hand, two kindred spirits connecting. The clockmaker looked up at him and said, “Old friend. My turn.” I knew then that he had been able to see Árdghal for some time. I think it was because of the constant nearness of death in the camps. But perhaps it was something more, a deeper kinship between the two that brought a special kind of sight.
Three weeks later the war ended and over the next year we watched the survivors of the camp find new homes. Among them was the last of the clockmaker’s family, a fourteen-year-old daughter. Like her father she had a spirit of fire that had pushed her to live, working with bloodied hands but an unbloodied soul throughout her time in the camp.
The clockmaker’s daughter eventually went to college and graduate school, studying the history of her people and becoming a professor in a large university. She wanted others to learn of the atrocities of the camps but also how beauty rises from ashes in the form of art and literature produced by former prisoners. Árdghal would check in on her now and again. He liked to sit and listen to her lecture, hearing in her voice the wisdom and grace of her father.
Years later I insisted on making the daughter’s final run with Árdghal. Family, friends, students, and admirers attended her deathbed. We floated in the room for days as she graciously delayed her death in favor of a few more moments to impart the wisdom she had gained. Flowers overwhelmed the home in which she lived, tokens from loved ones but also from former students and prominent public figures. Some sent them because it was a show of love and others as a show of gratitude for her life’s work. An hour before her death she posed in her bed for a photograph, prominently and proudly displaying her camp tattoo, unable to resist one last opportunity to teach the world.
When the time came, her father joined us in the room. He looked at Árdghal and said, again, “Old friend.” Árdghal took the clockmaker’s hand and the two together embraced the daughter’s spirit as it rose. To my shock, Árdghal turned to me and said, “It’s time. This is your run, not mine. I am the companion here, not the presence, old friend. Send us home.”
That was my hardest run. It wasn’t the first time I had served as the death presence for one of my own but Árdghal was the last of the ones I looked to for guidance. A moment comes when our work finishes, not a death as much as transition. I’m not sure if we grow weary or if we are rewarded or if we simply decide it’s time to release from the confines of our work with humans. Árdghal was strong and fierce and never considered helping him transition. Perhaps this is always the way with mentors. We assume that those who show us how to be brave and strong, who model for us the best of what we can be, that they will continue on forever in front of us because they are too good to do otherwise.
Now, as I watch the activity in the hospice house, I wonder what example I may be setting for those behind me. I don’t share that connection between a mentor and student with any of them and that might be my biggest regret.