Perhaps because I have just finished a mystery novel, I was pondering death tonight. It may seem painfully obvious to say that a mystery story dealt with death, but this one did in a different sort of way. And when I say that "I was pondering death," I do not mean in any deep or metaphysical manner. Rather, for some reason I simply began to recall my first experience with death: seeing death, I mean, rather than being touched by the death of a loved one.
I have only witnessed two actual parting moments in my lifetime, and with any luck those will be the only two that will ever see, since I will most likely be the next on the list — hopefully not in the very near future, however, as it's not as if I am exactly anxious to get on with it as it were. The first was of a young boy: the second of an old lady. He was a stranger; she was my mother. In the first instance, I was young: in the second, I was old or late middle-aged, rather. This is about the first death as best as my memory will permit me to describe it.
Late on a winter afternoon, I chanced upon a small group staring at something lying on Grenet St, near it's intersection with Oxford St, kitty-corner to Fordhams Grocery store in Montreal. I can't tell you what I was doing in that location. It was very near my friend's, Nelson's, house, so I suppose I could have seen him home after school and continued on my way. The thing is that this sighting had me going the opposite way from my own house. I'll have to leave the speculation because I just don't know.
I was drawn to the small gathering: only a few adults, all male, clustered around ...
A boy was lying in the middle of the road, on his back, eyes shut, breathing out heavily, pursing his lips with each exhalation. I only saw a few breaths before he ... they ... stopped. One of the men did something to confirm the passage, but I can't remember whether he took the boy's pulse, felt his heart, or put his ear to the boy's mouth. I do remember that he said, "He's gone." He said it, but he didn't have to, for I knew. In my own meditative way, I knew.
I also knew what happened although I can't remember if I heard it said or just figured it out. He had been struck by a vehicle. I can't recall seeing one nearby; certainly there wasn't one right by the boy in the middle of the road. Perhaps it had been a hit and run, for there wasn't the keening or wailing that one might expect from a poor soul who might have hit the poor boy.
My surprising thought, now just as it was then, was how easy it, the passing, was. He simply stopped breathing. He was there, and then he wasn't. I was probably ten years old give or take, and I was calm and not distraught. I went on my way without waiting for the police or an ambulance, filing the event in my childhood brain. I can't say now whether I told my parents at suppertime; I assume I did, but if so I can't remember getting much of a reaction from them. Perhaps, they thought I had made up a story, but I have never been much of a storyteller, so I can't say. Perhaps they were concerned, but since I wasn't, their reaction did not make an impression on me.
I have since learned that for the most part, dying is not an easy and quick process, but it did seem that way to my young mind, and in that particular case, I guess it really was, for he was unconscious and then only for a short while before he took his last breath. It still seems odd to me, however, that my young self processed it so calmly and phlegmatically. I'm not even sure if I told my best friend although I suspect that I would have — in very laid back and undramatic factual fashion, of course. For I am not a storyteller.