The first time I died, re-entry was quick. Born three weeks premature. One of my lungs didn’t inflate. I stopped breathing at the moment I should have begun a lifetime of deep gasps.
The doctor unseamed me from navel to chest and fiddled with that wet bloody mass. My spluttering cries filled my mother’s eyes with tears.
Only when I became a parent did I come to realise how my mother’s breath must have stopped, giving birth to me and hearing the doctor call to nurses with such urgency. I still bear a neat ten-centimetre zipper scar above my belly-button.
But I wasn’t ready to leave. I re-entered.
The second time I died, I confess that technically, it wasn’t a death at all. But I didn’t know it at the time. An eighteen-year-old just finished school, on the cusp of all things manhood, I flew with my mother to Greece. Strange that my mother should be beside me once again, when death ran a finger across my name in his black book. Our wonderful mother-son trip of a lifetime concluded, we boarded a flight at Athens airport and sank into our designated seats exhausted.
Thirty minutes into the flight we hit a storm and nauseating turbulence. Then the wing just ahead of my line of sight exploded and we fell from the sky like a building. People will tell you that time slows down when you are about to die. Scientists explain that the brain, under extreme duress, hyper-processes all sensory information. All the sounds, smells, feelings, sights normally ignored and edited so that we don’t go mad with the flood of input in our day-to-day existence. All I can tell you is that as we fell through the air, the cabin fell silent. My mother gasped and clutched the pendant around her neck. I froze, capable of thinking no more than This is it. This is how my life ends. I’m never going to have sex. There was faceless movement and sobbing in front of me. And then a gracefully effeminate young cabin steward strolled down the centre aisle calling above the storm, It’s all right everyone, we were just hit by lightning. Happens all the time. Nothing to worry about.
In this comical dramatic way, I re-entered the world for a second time. It took me a full half-hour for my breathing to return to normal. My mother squeezed my hand painfully as she settled back and closed her eyes.
After that, I attacked life passionately, with a lust and a vigour one feels when you know time is running out. I crammed my days and weeks and years with creation, with involvement, gathering into me a storehouse of experiences, sucking life into my lungs, through laughter, through song.
We buried mum a few years ago. Cancer took her long hair, took her smile, months before her exhausted body relinquished the fight. Strangely, I was by her side, whispering I love you, mum into her burning ear thirty minutes before she died. I was beside her, carrying her small weight in that pine box on the dreadful day we lowered her into the ground.
But Mum re-entered.
In the days and weeks after her funeral, I spotted her in crowds, saw the back of her head on trains.
I have lost count of the nights I have woken from a vivid dreamscape, walking with her, organising, laughing; playfully, youthfully sharing some ephemeral moment which evaporates as I wake. I see mum in my sister’s eyes and hair, in the love my children have for animals, in my daughter’s passion for music and dance, my son’s playfulness.
And I breathe deeply.
Astronauts tell us that the toughest part of re-entry is breathing. All that acceleration concentrated on the chest. Then on splashdown, you feel the sea’s waves and you are back on the water planet. How wonderful it must feel to lift that helmet and suck inside oneself the air straight off the ocean. A little like being born. I can understand the tears which streak traveller’s faces.