A few years ago, there was a Hollywood movie called 21 Grams, with the title referring to the research by physician Dr. Duncan MacDougall. He attempted to prove the existence of the immortal soul by scientifically calculating that about 21 grams is the loss in body weight when a human dies. That is supposed to be the soul leaving the body at the exact moment of death.
A couple of days ago, a dear neighbor, a dignified old lady, collapsed at home after her evening stroll. A couple of us around at that particular time, carried her still-warm body in our arms into the elevator and tried to resuscitate her while waiting for an ambulance. There seemed to be no pulse, no heartbeat, and no response to light. In a few minutes, she was taken away in the ambulance while the paramedics and the doctor continued to get her heart to start beating again. She never woke up and was pronounced brought dead.
She was here one moment and gone the next. I couldn’t help but wonder about the exact moment when she left this life. If, in fact, the research of Dr. MacDougall is true, when did her soul leave her body? Was it when we had her in our arms? Was it real or imagined that her body felt like it was rapidly cooling when we carried her? Where did those 21 grams go? Did she experience pain when that happened? How does one even realize the dissipation of such a minuscule weight?
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We know this intuitively – that the most ephemeral thing in life is life itself. That these 21 grams of our essence can leave this fragile body seemingly on a whim. That death can come calling on a normal day, when the most mundane activities are being done almost by rote. That the efforts of a doctor who is able to rush in within a few minutes would be futile. That when the time has come, life ends, as surely as the sun is going to rise tomorrow. We know, but go on to live in perennial denial. Maybe this denial is by design so we can go about our lives happily, one day at a time. Maybe millions of years of evolution have put these thoughts of death in a little cage somewhere deep inside our brains like in the fairytales where the evil sorcerer has his life hidden in a parrot, out of reach of enemies. Maybe that denial is protection against what the world can throw at us at any moment.
Something that is going to be on my mind for a while is if we could have done anything better. Despite all rationalizations that she was old, and that it was time, and that her heart gave up after a massive heart attack, one cannot help but wonder. Wonder if something better could have been done for the dignified, calm old man standing on the side telling his distraught son that it would be alright. If something could have been done to avoid the sudden aching loneliness he is bound to endure after the relatives are gone in a couple of days. If something could have been done to make her passing painless, if at all she felt pain.
You’ll never know the answers to some questions. But then, maybe we all know the answers deep within. The answers are what we want them to be.