The Other Side Of Exhale by Jennifer Watts

I never trusted heaven, until I had a dream about being there.

In my work as a hospice volunteer I’d sat by the bedside of people dying, part of a ministry of presence for those in their last few hours of life. 

I did nothing special but be there as their breath slowed, sometimes getting noisier, often shallower and then irregular, and then not at all.

Their family and friends would come and go, grief a heavy burden for some, the unknown making people act in odd ways I tried to ignore. People got loud, got angry, needy, even physical. 

Fear came in two ways. 

There was ice cold – a stone in the gut, the heaviness bringing a person to a standstill, a kind of paralysis where they walk around in a fog of indecision and inaction. 

Or, a flurry of heat where a person flutters incessantly, unable to be still or finish a full sentence or thought or task, all fuss and bother and constant movement like they’re being burned by a thousand lit matchsticks.

The dying, well, they were easier. Mostly accepting and at peace in a way that that made me wonder. That last breath, the moment of letting go and going, did they know where too? Did they look ahead or behind, still?

I imagine the moment of death like floating down a river. With that last exhale, giving myself permission to leave, trickier if my loved ones have yet to give it to me, I drift through the amniotic darkness, warm and safe and towards something bigger and brighter.

Once, I woke to find myself in a wooden rocking chair. I didn’t recognise the room I was in, yet it was familiar in a way I couldn’t grasp.

The room was poorly lit, shadows in the corners, the dimness making me squint to see. Oh yes, there to the left is a picture on the wall that’s mine, a cabinet against the wall with china and trinkets I know.

The window in front of me is huge, taking up almost the entire wall and it’s only when I focus on it properly that I see there’s an ocean right outside. 

Waves are rolling in from far away, curling into monsters, then crashing and rushing towards this house I’m in. They settle quickly, occasionally running all the way to the window, softly licking the glass. I am safe, but whose house is this? 

The room I’m in makes up the whole of the bottom floor. Behind me there’s a doorway and stairs leading up to another floor. I can hear voices above me, murmuring indistinctly. I am not alone.

I look up and see the night sky. But wait, aren’t there rooms above me? Something is not quite right. It feels like I’m in one of those off-kilter, fun houses at the carnival where nothing is as it seems. 

The night sky is awesome and bigger than just that. It’s a universe, maybe even more; infinite in expanse, pretty pinpricks of stars all the way.

I’ve always loved the awesomeness of the ocean and the infiniteness of the sky. Maybe this is where I live after all.

And now I see bright, white light, a room to the right of me. Why haven’t I noticed this before? I get out of the rocking chair and step down into the room. 

It’s my home. I recognise everything. An open space with a glass-topped kitchen table, the gleaming surfaces of a clean kitchen and in a nook to the right, a long, organised writing desk. There’s Murray, my husband of 28 years, looking for something on my desk. 

“Murray,” I say. “What are you looking for?”

I’ve always been good at finding what he’s after. He seeks, I find. One of the many rhythms we’ve comfortably settled into during our many years of marriage. 

Like most women, I anticipate well and while I have a selfish streak, mostly it brings me great pleasure to be useful and helpful to others. It’s one of the reasons I volunteer at the hospice.

He hasn’t heard me. I move closer.

“Murray!”

Frustrated now, I reach out my hand to touch his arm. Something is wrong. I feel my arm moving, but nothing is there.

Only then do I realise what this is and where I am, a dream where I’m on the other side of that last breath. 

There’s something I desperately need to tell my husband. 

It seems simple, stupidly so – I need to tell him everything is ok, it’s alright over here. 

“It’s ok, it’s ok, it’s ok,” I’m repeating something he can’t hear. 

Does he sense my presence? Is his stillness, leaning over my desk, a place I loved to spend time at, a sign he knows I’m near? Murray looks up, and around, and for the briefest moment I think he looks right at me. 

People from across the belief spectrum will tell you all they think you need to hear about heaven and hell, and how to get to one and avoid the other. I’ve never trusted anyone who thinks they know it all.

“It’s ok, it’s ok,” I whisper to him, over and over, because I’m lost for other words, and any attempt to describe this rich, euphoric feeling of being whole over here, will water it down. Then he’s gone, the bright, white room is gone, and so am I. 

I’m back to the house of many rooms, with the infinite ocean and sky all around, a space where I’m complete and safe and feel an overwhelming joy that I don’t yet fully comprehend.

Breath in, exhale, let go. It’s ok.  

Jennifer Watts is a writer and former journalist who has lived in several countries. She has freelanced for a range of newspapers and is a contributor for Chicken Soup For The Soul and The Blue Nib. She lives in New Zealand with her husband and two children.

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