by Jane Esbensen Moore
December 1, 1996

The moment when my mother stopped existing was not the moment she gave her last breath. Yes. Her body gave its last breath - her body slowly, slowly shut down. Finally still and empty. But my mother, my mother, that which made her my mother had disappeared an hour or so before.

I remember looking down at her face one moment and finding her gone. I understood it intuitively and recognized it at once. That which made my mother who she was, was no longer there. All that was left now was the time needed for her body to cease its motion.

People came in and spoke to her, to say their final words - one more time, one more time, never enough time to say good-bye. And I sat watching. Waiting for her body to cease.

"Your body's nothing but a machine, "

she would admonish me when I was younger.

"You need to take care of it - to feed it - or it will not run well."

A machine! It sounded so crass, so harsh, so removed. So matter-of-fact. I knew she was wrong - that there was more. But now, here I was witnessing its death, and she was right. What I was looking at was nothing more than a machine that was running down. It was on automatic pilot. The conductor, the engineer, gone.

I have been a part of many people's deaths before, so the stages were familiar. The signs were clear. So many times I'd sat at the bedside of someone who was close to death. Holding their hands. Listening to family members , priests or rabbis say words of comfort, of prayer. I would sit, only hoping that death would come soon so this person could finally be in peace. How many times had I wondered what it must feel like to die. Did you know that your last breath was coming, that you would soon not be here?

In those times I'd come to appreciate the moment in the process of dying when I could see a person recede into oneself. That moment was always a relief to me because it meant they were no longer aware of what was happening. They were protected in their minds from any suffering of their bodies. I'd come to feel grateful for the power and wisdom of the process. Glad when a person's mind gathers them up and takes them to a safer region. Glad when I saw that happen to my mom.

But I was glad out of habit.

I had been shown earlier, by some change, some nuance of energy, that my mother - that person who was Barbara - was no longer a part of her body. So when this phase of disappearance occurred, the time when the mind takes one further into oneself, I now understood that this was not my mother who was being carried away to those deeper regions, but merely --not merely...but still, yes, merely -- the physicalness of my mother that was being transported. But not mother.

What had left earlier? What had disappeared? What is it that makes us who we are? That makes us Jane, or John, or Stephanie - or Barbara?

Is it a collection of data stored in our brains? Life experiences that create and shadow our faces? Something behind the eyes?

Perhaps. In part -- But I think it's something even more elusive and subtle. A scrim. A paper-thin sheet of something as fragile as a dragonfly wing. Something transitory, but solid enough in its makeup to call our attention to it. Something I'd never noted before in others, moments before death. Something so unique to an individual that someone on the outside of their lives wouldn't recognize its leaving. I know I never did -- Maybe, at best, the receding deeper into one's mind was the closest I got to recognizing this "disappearance of self" when I stood by the bedsides of strangers who were dying, but still I wasn't recognizing that which made that person who they were.

Is it personality I'm speaking about? Or a quality emanating from the recesses of the unconscious mind - our other self?

Or is it a tonal quality? The harmonics of ourselves. We think we're only hearing one note, but maybe, in reality, it's a series of sound waves, both high and low that, surrounding the note, making it whole and pure which makes us who we are. And when its tone is its purest, it is then when we hear the overtone. A sound not played or sung, but hanging in the air - as real as though it were "really there" - which, in fact it is- and isn't. A note of completion and wholeness. Perhaps on the outside we're just who we are. Johnny one-note.

But, I think, we are more. Like musical tones, we are one thing, and yet are made up of different layers of ourselves: The harmonics of ourselves. Our memories: those etchings of our lives, deeply embedded and influencing us always. Our struggles: imprinting themselves on the surface of our minds where they continually alter us, if ever so subtly. Our knowledge and wonderment. Our emotions and times of numbness. Our connections to others - to life itself - and the combination of those things which make us who we are. Maybe all of this creates our essence; creates one pure note. And maybe, if we listen carefully enough, we can hear another note hanging in the air, by itself. The overtone. Our lives.

This overtone, this sound, is what I heard moments before my mother died. And I only knew I'd heard it, because of its disappearance. Her life, and everything that made it up, left the room when she died - filling it with silence.

And this made sense to me.

Never was there a woman so utterly connected to everything and everyone around her. She simply was whole; in the eternal process of self-creation. One. Present at all times, mentally, physically,emotionally. So present, that even when she was dying, on that Friday morning in October, she was still Barbara. Although by all medical accounts she should have been in a coma or, at the very least, not in her right mind, she continued to be engaged. Her presence was felt. She was still Barbara. Still reaching out - although no longer with words, but just with an essence that let me know that Mom was still there. A blessing, I suppose. But mostly a curse, I felt, because she wasn't provided with a time of non-existence in which to simply cease being.

Perhaps as she had deliberately attended to her life, she was now deliberately attending to her death. She would often tell me that she simply told herself how things should be, and then applied herself - as though in a play.

"Here's Barbara Juster, the mother."

"Here's Barbara Juster, the teacher."

"Here's Barbara Juster, the writer."

And so, why not now,

"Here's Barbara Juster, dying"?

And so there she was, for a time. Still in the air.

One pure note...

And then she disappeared.

A flatness came into the room. A palpable difference in the air. No harmonic - no overtone. No note any longer. -- That which made up Barbara Juster, every moment of her life, had ceased humming its tune within her. Stillness came, and I was left with a measure of rests - and a fermata sign at the end. Holding me in place.

One last note - gone.

The weight of silence was held out to me - heard - and understood to be the last earthly presence of my mother.

Written Memories

Barbara Juster Esbensen Memorial

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