A man died today. He died as I held his left hand, lightly curling my fingers around one of his long, spindly fingers, while his father, Joe, held his other hand and Melissa, his former wife and the mother of two of their children, lay next to him.
Thirty-year-old Mattie rested between Joe and Melissa, nearing his final journey following a cancer diagnosis one year earlier. Melissa had called me a few weeks earlier, requesting that I come and be with him. She had a feeling that it would provide some sort of comfort for him as it became increasingly evident that he would die fairly soon. The treatments had delayed the onset of the ultimate conclusion, yet the cancer continued to devour more of his system.
I don’t know all the details, but that isn’t what’s important. My youngest daughter Catherine is a close friend of Melissa’s, and I’ve known her for a long time, though we haven’t always stayed in touch. I recall doing a shamanic treatment with her when she was younger at her request, and it really shifted her. I also facilitated a baby blessing ceremony with one of her children when she and Mattie were still together, so there’s always been this thread. I’m sort of the family shaman, I guess.
Melissa understands and respects the kind of work that I do, so she asked me to come visit Mattie before he left. Due to my schedule, I wasn’t able to do so until that day. I had actually planned to go see him before, but I was called to Iowa at the last minute to be with my sister Nancy following the death of her husband of forty-seven years. Seems to be a theme here.
I had just returned the day before and was still catching up on both my work and my rest from a travel-filled three weeks. I had told Melissa this, and that I could go see him within a day or two.
On the day Melissa called, I’d planned to finish some work, clean up my office, and possibly take a nap. When we finally talked in the early afternoon, she said she felt it would be important for me to come that day rather than the next. “I left last night,” she said, “and didn’t think he’d make it through the night.” I immediately said, “of course, I’ll come now,” but for the next few moments I was wondering whether I should go. Then I heard the voice of an ancestral guide saying clearly and emphatically, “GO NOW!”
I didn’t hesitate after hearing this.
I immediately revised my plans, letting Joe and Melissa know I would be there. I scrambled about the house, going through some of my sacreds, listening closely as to what I should bring. In a small-handled bag, I placed some tuning forks, sage, tobacco, three nag champa scented tea lights, a small egg rattle, a bottle of lavender scented oil, some holy water from Lourdes, and a feather. It was a turkey feather, but worked out to be a symbol for a falcon feather. This was related to a falcon that Melissa told me she’d spotted close by to Mattie’s father’s place, where Mattie had been staying.
When she told me that the falcon had been spotted daily over the last two days roosting on a fence just outside the apartment, I recalled a story an Australian Aboriginal friend had told me about the wedgetail, the eagle of Australia. He said, “We believe that the wedgetail appears when someone close to you dies. They are waiting to carry their soul into the after-life.” The falcon was keeping vigil to await the task of carrying Mattie’s soul on his final journey. Powerful magic was at work here.
I felt very clear that this was an important mission. I’d been with people before who were close to death, and I got a chance to say farewell and to offer my blessings for safe travels. In a few instances, I even facilitated ceremonies for those who were about to pass. But I’d never actually been with someone who died while I was in their presence. There are those who deal with this daily, but it was a new experience for me. Yet I was crystal clear on what to do.
It turned out to be a poignantly beautiful and tragic experience.
When I arrived, Melissa greeted me in the parking lot. Her eyes were rimmed with red from crying; yet through it all she remained calm and very present. We walked up the stairs into Mattie’s father’s home, where Mattie had been staying during this last year. We greeted each other and Mattie’s father, Joe, reminded me that we’d met before at the christening of his grandchild.
It was clear to me within a few moments that Joe was ready to take that walk with his son. His love and grief were apparent, though he was doing his best to be stoic throughout. The three of us walked into the bedroom where Mattie—or at least what was left of him—was lying on the bed.
He was down to seventy pounds, literally just skin and bones, and his breathing was very raspy and erratic. I kneeled next to him and took his left hand in mine. Joe got on the bed and held his other hand, while Melissa lay on the bed near him, touching his shoulder.
I first said, “Mattie, this is Steven Farmer. I know you’ve been expecting me. We’re all here to pray for you.” I then lit a combination of tobacco and sage and brushed his withered body with the smoke, then anointed him on his forehead, throat, chest, hands, and feet with lavender essential oil.
A song came to me so I hummed an unidentifiable lullaby, words being entirely unnecessary. After this I rattled around his body with a very soft and gentle eggshell rattle, then sat back next to him. I reached into my medicine kit, took the feather out and laid it on his chest.
Then the three of us sat for several minutes in silence, listening to his gasping breath and feeling the diminishing presence of his life force. Being in an altered state this entire time, I now focused my gaze on the feather lying on his chest. I watched as it fluttered slightly, just noticeably rising and falling to the rhythm of his heartbeat. His rate of breathing slowed. Every so often, either Joe or I would say gently, “It’s okay. You can let go.”
He took what we thought was his last breath, and I sensed his soul leave his body. Yet after a few brief seconds that felt like an eternity, he took four more breaths. My gaze continued on the feather. Then he took his final breath and I saw the feather twitch twice more and stop. He was at peace.
Joe and Melissa wept deeply, and even though my eyes were wet, I was filled with a wondrous, expansive, heartfelt sensation of release and gratitude. After a year of declining health and considerable pain, he shed his skin and transited to that invisible realm: the world of Spirit.
It was profound, tragic, and beautiful all in one.
There is Light even in the darkness of death.