The first time I watched someone die, I was five.
Mr. Hyland, my kindergarten teacher, was a cheerful, tubby man whose shiny scalp and perfectly round face reminded me of the moon. One afternoon, my classmates and I sat cross-legged on the scratchy carpet in front of him, enthralled by his theatrical telling of Peter Rabbit. I remember how his meaty thighs spilled over the edges of the child-sized wooden chair he sat on. His cheeks were rosier than usual, but who could blame him for getting excited over a good Beatrix Potter plot?
As the story reached its climax—when Peter Rabbit lost his jacket fleeing the evil Mr. McGregor—Mr. Hyland stopped, as if pausing for emphasis. We stared up at him, hearts thumping with anticipation. But instead of resuming his narration, he made a sound similar to a hiccup, eyes bulging.
Then, like a felled redwood tree, he toppled to the ground.
We all sat motionless, wide-eyed, unsure if our beloved teacher was just upping the ante on his usual dramatic storytelling. When he hadn't moved after several minutes—not even to blink his open eyes—the room erupted with squeals of panic from everyone.
Everyone except for me, that is.
I moved close enough to Mr. Hyland to hear the final push of air from his lungs. As the pandemonium echoed down the hall and other teachers rushed into the classroom, I sat beside him, holding his hand calmly as the last blush of red disappeared from his face.
The school recommended I get counseling following the "incident." But my parents, who were more than a little self-absorbed, noted no significant change in my behavior. They bought me an ice cream, patted me on the head, and—reasoning that I'd always been slightly odd—judged me to be fine.
Mostly, I was fine. But I've wondered ever since what Mr. Hyland would have liked his last words to be if they hadn't been about the antics of a particularly naughty rabbit.
I didn't mean to keep count of how many people I'd watched die since Mr. Hyland thirty-one years ago, but my subconscious was a diligent accountant. Especially since I was nearing a pretty impressive milestone—today the tally nudged up to ninety-seven.
I stood on Canal Street watching the taillights of the mortuary van merge into traffic. Like a runner who'd just passed the baton, my job was done.
Amid the exhaust fumes and pungent blend of dried fish and tamarind, the scent of death still lingered in my nostrils. I don't mean the odor of a body decomposing—I never really had to deal with that, since I only ever sat with the dying as they hovered on the threshold between this world and the next. I'm talking about that other scent, the distinct smell when death is imminent. It's hard to describe, but it's like that imperceptible shift between summer and fall when somehow the air is different but you don't know why. I'd become attuned to that smell in my years as a death doula. That's how I knew someone was ready to go. And if there were loved ones there, I'd let them know that now was the moment to say their goodbyes. But today there were no loved ones. You'd be surprised how often it happens. In fact, if it weren't for me, at least half of those ninety-seven people would've died alone. There may be almost nine million people living here, but New York is a city of lonely people full of regrets. It's my job to make their final moments a little less lonesome.
A social worker had referred me to Guillermo a month ago. "I've got to warn you," she'd said on the phone. "He's an angry and bitter old one."
I didn't mind—usually that just means the person is feeling scared, unloved, and alone. So when Guillermo hardly even acknowledged me on the first few visits, I didn't take it personally. Then, when I was late to the fourth visit because I'd accidentally locked myself out of my apartment, he looked at me with tears in his eyes as I sat down beside his bed.
"I thought you weren't coming," he said with the quiet despair of a forgotten child.
"I promise you that won't happen," I said, pressing his leathery hand between mine.
And I always keep my word. Shepherding a dying person through the last days of their life is a privilege—especially when you're the only thing they have to hold on to.