|Photo by Sarah Nitt|
[Old English bræþ from Germanic from Indo-European, from base meaning 'burn, heat'.
In sense 3 etc. replaced Old English æþm, anda.]
1 An odour, a smell, a scent. Long obsolete except dialectical. OE
2(a) obsolete. A vapour given off by heated objects etc.: reek; steam. ME-M17
2(b) obsolete. Air exhaled from anything, or impregnated with its exhalations (compare with sense 7 below). E17
3(a) Air exhaled from the lungs (as made manifest by smell of sighs);
generally air inspired or expired in respiration. ME
3(b) The air blown into or out of a musical instrument. poetical. E17
3(c) PHONETICS. Voiceless expiration of air. M19
4 The faculty or action of breathing; existence, spirit, life. ME
5 An act of breathing, a single inspiration. ME
6 A whisper; an utterance, a speech; spoken judgement or will. ME
7 A gentle blowing (of wind, etc.), a puff;
figuratively the enlivening or favourable influence (of);
(passing into sense 2b), a whiff, a trace. LME
8 The power of breathing; free or easy breathing. L16
9 An opportunity or time for breathing. Compare with BREATHER. L16
Three times in my life, I've had the privilege of being with someone at the moment they die. The circumstances on each occasion were different: one was my Mum, who had suffered a sudden stroke nine days previously, one was my grandmother, who was elderly and had been in hospital for some time, and one was a stranger at the scene of a traffic accident. With each, however, there was a serenity and peace as I sat and held their hands, talking softly as I watched their breathing grow shallower, until at last and with a final certainty, they drew in their last breath and exhaled it softly. And then everything was still.
While it might seem morbid to remember these moments as a privilege, I can't regard it as anything else. These were three women who had lead full and productive lives, had raised loving families and had experienced times and overcome hardships that I could never begin to understand, and it was my place to be with them, to comfort them and ensure that they weren't alone, as that majestic journey ended and they went through that final mortal transition from life to death.
Death is horrific, of course, and the range of emotions that accompany it is extreme. I didn't know my grandmother well, and there was the sting of inevitable regret for a woman whose life I didn't really understand; the stranger, who was to me just an anonymous middle-aged woman who had the misfortune to be in the wrong place when a passing lorry shed its load, suffered horrific injuries, the sight of which haunted me for many months, as did guilt and doubt over whether I could have done more to save her; and Mum, the most loving and courageous mother a family could ever have, whose passing left the gnawing pain of loss and a void in each of us that could never be restored, nor would we want it to be, by anyone else.
It was a privilege and an honour to be with each of these women in their final moments, to know that they understood they weren't alone and could draw that final breath while hearing a gentle voice and feeling the warmth of a hand holding theirs. These experiences haven't made me more afraid of death; perhaps they've made me less so. But I do hope that come that time for me, when the heat of my breath is fading, that someone is there to talk softly to me, to hold my hand, and to tell me that I'm not alone.
Dead of Winter by Eels
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