Taylor was diagnosed with lung cancer at the age of twenty-one. Although he never smoked a day in his life, his father’s family were heavy smokers, and he suffered for it. He was my cousin Lynn’s only son.
I belonged to a weekly meditation circle at the time, and Taylor, who was studying to be a physicist, asked if he could join. I told him that we not only meditated, but liked to explore the realm of intuition as well, and he said that was fine with him. So week after week, Taylor would join in and add his scientific musings to our experience. He told me that while he was skeptical, he was sure physics was going to bridge the gap between the rational world and the irrational. He said that I needed to involve myself in research, if I was ever to prove the existence of anything beyond the accepted norm. I would laugh and tell him that I was a Literature major, and research was outside my norm.
Taylor’s bald head, and limping figure became a fixture at our weekly meetings, and we all came to love his gentle banter. Unwilling to accept anything at face value, he brought a healthy balance of skepticism to our circle.
Then one evening, he did not attend. Nor the next.
His mother called me. “Taylor is in the hospital, and they think he has three more weeks to live. He is asking for you.”
He was asleep when I entered the room. His girlfriend greeted me and told me that he slept most of the time, but that if I could wait he would wake up. She excused herself and left us alone.
Taylor’s body look so fragile and boyish lying in that bed. An oxygen mask covered his face, so that only his closed eyelids could be seen. His head was still bald, and he looked more like an infant than the young man I had come to know. At this point in my life, I had not been this close to death, and I wasn’t sure what to say.
Taylor’s eyes opened and I saw him register my presence.
“Hey, Tay!” I tried to sound cheerful, compassionate.
He reached up and pulled the oxygen mask down. “Thanks for coming.”
“I asked you to come, because I want to talk about what’s happening to me.” His words were laboured. I could see it was an effort for him to talk.
“Okay,” I began. “Are you sure it won’t be too much for you? Are you okay without the mask?”
“Oh, yes. It just keeps me comfortable.” He replaced the mask and took a few breaths. “I fall asleep a lot. Even mid-sentence.”
“That’s okay,” I reassured him. “I’ll just wait.”
“Thank you,” and he was gone again, sleeping behind the mask.
I looked around. The room was spacious with a large picture window overlooking the southwest part of the city. A recliner sat in the corner by the window, and several other chairs allowed for many visitors. The blue walls reminded me of the night sky just as the last rays of light are vanishing: a blue tinged with indigo. So this is where people came to die.
“I want to talk about my dreams.” I understood now why he had invited me. I had enrolled in a course at the university that explored the meaning of dreams. It was actually a religious studies class, and examined how God speaks to us through our dream messages. “Everyone else wants to talk about things that have no meaning for me anymore, like getting their cars fixed, or the weather. I don’t have time for small talk.”
He closed his eyes again. I waited.
“I have been dreaming about horses.”
“Interesting. Horses were the original mode of transportation, so they are seen symbolically as the vehicles that transport us from one realm to another. Apparently horse dreams are common at the end of life.”
He nodded. “Sometimes I can’t tell if I am dreaming or it’s real.”
“What do you mean?”
“I am so emotional. I can’t seem to turn it off.” I had to smile. My highly rational, intellectual cousin not being able to control his emotions.
“Well, I’m no expert, but I’m going to guess you are going through one hell of an emotional time.”
His eyes met mine and we both laughed. “You’re right about that.”
We both fell silent.
* * * * *
Our visits became a daily occurrence, but I never stayed long as it tired him too much. We talked about his dreams, his emotions, and as it got closer to the end, we talked about his fears.
“I’m not sure if I’m actually dreaming,” he told me one day. “More and more I feel like what I am experiencing is real.”
“Describe it to me.”
The silences were growing longer. Speaking, or even staying awake, seemed to take great effort now. I would hold his hand to let him know I was still with him. I felt such reverence towards my young cousin for letting me share these moments with him.
“I see figures. Grey figures.”
“Do you know who they are?”
His eyes stared, unfocused, into the space before him. “No. Can’t really say they are people.”
I pondered this revelation while he rested. I thought back to a story my mother told me about my birth. During my delivery, she suddenly lost physical consciousness, and found herself, disembodied, floating above the delivery table. She said she saw her father beside her reaching out his hand, and as she went to take it, she realized what was happening and pulled back, being jolted back into her body and the labour pains. She claims that she had refused death in that moment, and remembers telling her father that she had five babies to look after and couldn’t go with him.
Taylor’s eyes were open again. “What if the figures that you see are here to escort you to the other side?” I asked. “How do they make you feel?”
“Maybe your fear is what is clouding your ability to see them.”
He didn’t wake up again that visit.
* * * * *
The next day I arrived at the hospital later than usual. Taylor’s mom met me in the hallway. “He’s gone. He tried to wait for you, but didn’t make it. He did leave a message for you, though. I don’t know what it means, but he said to tell you that you were right, that all came out clear in the end, and not to worry about him.”
As I hugged her in condolence, I thought my heart was going to burst.
In his short life, this beautiful young man shared so much with me: his theories and questions, his deepest vulnerabilities, and his experience of the beyond. Together, were we able to strip away all the noise and distractions of everyday life to touch something much more sacred and real.