Holly was my friend, probably my best friend for a while, in college. She appeared sometime during my sophomore year. She was a little whiff of a thing, so thin that a strong gust could blow her away. I don’t recall how we met, exactly, but we were inseparable.
The only problem was the hole in her heart. Her blue lips should have been the give-away.
She was born with that hole in her heart, and though she’d had an operation as a baby, it wasn’t entirely successful, and her doctors were certain she wouldn’t survive another one. She could only walk five hundred feet or so before she’d have to stop for a bit and catch her breath. But she treated it all with a characteristic light touch. “And when I faint—which I almost certainly will, it happens a couple of times a year—try to keep me from hurting myself when I hit the ground, and just let me lie there for a while. I’ll ‘come to’ after fifteen minutes or so.”
Well, the one time she fainted with me, she never “came to.”
I would stop by her room on the way to dinner, and we’d walk the rest of the way together. This one evening we were heading down the hall in her dorm when she collapsed. I waited four, maybe five, minutes for her to revive, then called 911. The paramedics came and worked diligently.
For the past thirty years I’ve told everyone that she never regained consciousness, that she died peacefully in my arms. I’ve been lying all this time. She did revive, briefly, as the paramedics were working on her. And she screamed. Her eyes flew open in abject horror, her face contorted with fear and pain, and she screamed a long and terrifying and (dare I say it?) blood-curdling scream, then died.
They worked on her for another hour, mostly at the hospital, but to no avail, of course.
That scream has haunted me all these years. At the time I interpreted it as some carry-over from whatever place her soul had gone while she was unconscious; I was devoutly Evangelical in those days, and as she hadn’t Given Her Live to Christ in any formal way, I was sure that she had seen a glimpse of the fires of Hell. And now she was dead, and it was too late.
Three days after her funeral (a surprisingly jolly affair, considering, though some of the humor was unintentional—her family and friends came from Ottowa, Illinois, which they kept pronouncing as Aaaaaaaaaaattawa Ellenoise, and they drank melk rather than milk), my friend Frances had a dream.
She was walking in a beautiful field of wildflowers, and Holly appeared, looking marvelously healthy and full of life. At one point in their conversation, Holly said, “Let’s run!”
Frances protested: “But you have a hole in your heart—you can’t run!”
Holly dashed away and called over her shoulder, “Catch me!” The dream ended with Holly’s laughter lingering on the breeze.
That dream gave me enormous peace. I knew with great certainty that she was now with God, and whole, and happy. But the memory of that scream just before she died has remained shocking and upsetting to me, and because it didn’t fit in with the happy ending, I’ve simply deleted it from the story as I’ve told it over the years.
It’s taken me a long time to recognize the power of the human spirit in fighting to live, or in becoming resigned to death. Sometimes the clinging to life seems inappropriate (I’ve worked shamanically for more than one person who should clearly unclench their hold on this world and go gently into that good night); sometimes the resignation seems entirely too premature. I now think that Holly was struggling to breathe, fighting with every fiber of her being to live, like a drowning person desperately trying to break the surface of the water. And she did, for a moment. She gasped in a final lung of air, eyes wide, and perhaps frightened, before sinking back into the sea.
Now when I see that screaming face, which is still incredibly vivid in my memory even thirty-two years later, I see the human struggle toward life, the will and desire and power of the spirit. I’ve come to believe that survival isn’t always so important, but that struggle, the wrestling with life and death that is the essence of our physical existence, is (pardon the pun) vital.
Maybe it’s being 51 and realizing that life is short. Maybe it’s finally saying, to God or to myself, “I want to live. I choose to live. Maybe for the first time in my life, I really want to be here.” But whatever the reason, I now see the moments before Holly died in a different light. It’s time to honor that struggle, that scream, instead of running from it.