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by Joshua Vis
I nearly cried during CPR training. It’s so raw, so rooted in mortality. Someone you love, or you yourself, could drop dead and be gone in an instant. It’s an absurd truth.
I was thinking of my daughters—Mahalia, who is nearly ten, and Luciana, who is five. I was doing the training as preparation for my role as a coach in a program called Girls on the Run. It’s a program which aims to “inspire girls to be joyful, healthy and confident using a fun, experience-based curriculum which creatively integrates running.”
The CPR instructor was a seasoned Emergency Medical Technician. He spoke frankly about death, which I found oddly comforting. We are our bodies. When our heart and brain die, that’s it. Bodies are precious, sacred even.
He told us that the current percentage of people who are brought back to life through CPR is 8%. That’s up from something like 5-6% the year before. He talked about working for days, going on countless calls to places where someone was dead and not saving a single one of them. Just day after day of death after death. I was transfixed. This guy was intimate with mortality and he was urging us, in those three hours, to face mortality.
At one point he told us about a man that he brought back to life five times. Each time he brought the man back to life, the man became conscious and even talked to him, only to die again. In the end, the guy died a sixth time and never came back. I was dumbfounded. That’s extraordinary.
Except that it’s not extraordinary. People are dying in normal and bizarre ways every day. Death is extremely ordinary. But I haven’t managed to make death ordinary. My theology won’t let me. Death is an enemy.
It just so happened that two of the manikins that the instructor brought for us to practice with were replicas of a six-year-old girl and a ten-year-old girl. They were my daughters.
When you approach the manikin, you are supposed to survey the scene and then make sure that the person is unresponsive. You do this initially by tapping their shoulder and saying their name. I said, “Mahalia, Mahalia, can you hear me? Are you ok?” I checked for breathing and a pulse. I looked at my watch to make sure that I checked her pulse for a full 10 seconds.
My partner, who knew I was envisioning the manikin as my daughter, said, “That ten seconds is going to feel like an eternity.” It did. I then told my partner to call 911 and get the AED. I then gave CPR to what I imagined to be my precious Mahalia.
I did the same to that six-year-old manikin. “Luciana, Luciana, can you hear me? Are you ok?” Breathe. Concentrate on the task at hand. Push back the tears. They won’t help.
These were wonderful moments. I was grateful to have felt what I felt, to confront the mortality of my daughters. It was oddly beautiful to enact their death, to physically acknowledge their and my finitude, our collective helplessness. The density of human existence includes death, which is perhaps unmatched in power and meaning. It defies explanation. To experience it is to be forever transformed. In these ways, there is something divine about it.
Two days before the training, a friend asked me if I could live without the promise of resurrection. I said that I was trying to live as if there was nothing after death, just a fade to nonexistence. That’s my Lent without Easter challenge (see my post of two weeks ago).
“What about your daughters? Wouldn’t you need to believe that you would see them again if they were to die?”
How could anyone say no? But I ventured a “no” to my friend’s question. She and the others in the conversation were genuinely astonished, and I understood why. The assumption was that such loss would be too much to bear without the promise of a reunion. And they may be right. I wouldn’t criticize any parent who held tightly to such a promise.
But in that CPR training, another message was stirring inside me. You’re mortal. All of your loved ones are mortal. Accept it. The depth of existence includes death, requires it.
Maybe it’s not just life that reveals God to us, but death too. Maybe making death my friend, instead of my enemy, can be revelatory. Maybe that’s how I rob death of its sting.