My first job was washing dishes at a fast food joint, working the shift after school. We normally got the kitchen cleaned up by 0100 or so. If I remember correctly I had to carry a letter of authorization so I could drive home. Being just 16 my license had a midnight curfew. Jobs after that included the night shift at an aircraft plant, then jobs where the shifts would run in excess of 24 hours in order to get a job done and out the door. (At non-union shops of course.) Once I landed in the commercial airline / commuter world night shifts were normal. The planes worked all day hauling people around, we worked all night making sure they were ready to go out the next day. I was the shop manager and responsible for hiring the crew. Night shift mechanics were a tough lot, doing tough work in the wee hours of the morning. Good at what they did, not easy to manage, and not normally the kind of people you take home for Sunday dinner.
Once I moved from the shop to the front seat of an airplane, night watches were a bit more regular. Many a pilot learned the basics to being a hard core professional plying the night freight runs that cross the country so you can absolutely, positively, get it the next day. Air ambulance and charter flying regularly happen overnight, as do international and corporate flights.
Sailors, even those of us who barely qualify or rarely get too far from shore, will regularly see a night through from start to finish. Have the weather get frisky and an entire anchorage or mooring field will enjoy the salt water version of an “All Night Bowling Party”.
Tonight, though, I stand a very different kind of night watch. Mom lies a couple of feet away, already lost to this world but her body hanging on to the habit of breathing. They have her on O2 for reasons I don't really understand. An IV line gives the nurses an easy way to administer the drugs that keep her comfortable. Earlier, much of the clan was gathered in her room, family who have been standing the watches, and they can use the break.
This is a quiet watch, the burble of the O2, the occasional soft grind of the IV pumps, Mom's slow breathing, the soft steps of care givers walking the hall; that's all there is to mark the passing hours. At four breaths a minute, sometimes three, the focus is simple, is there another breath after this? Certainly there can't be many, a few hundred, if that. Seems an odd way to measure out the last of a life, but there it is.
I can't really do anything, yet the feeling is that one of us should be here, that Mom not be alone. But, sitting here in this room I know one thing for sure: Mom is not alone, but I am. What ever gossamer thread some might imagine to be holding her to this world is but an illusion. In this room, at this moment, lies an old body long used, used well, and now used up. What ever purpose the cosmos had for it has been met. Also, in this room and at this moment, lies the mystery that haunts all of our days. Right here, right next to me; I can see it, touch it, feel its presence...but it remains a mystery.
Hours slip by. Daylight starts to show through the window shades. Social lore had me thinking that the dark hours after midnight would likely be the time, but Mom was the same. In fact her breathing had improved as the night wore on. Light now, still quiet, though a shoe scuff here or a door closing there made it clear the day was stirring. A change in the cadence of Mom's breathing caught my attention. For the first time since my arriving, emotions flitted across her forehead and lips. I started to stoke her hair, wondering if I should call someone in, deciding instead that, whatever was happening would happen regardless. A deep breath, a pause, another deep breath...
There was no sense of presence and no sense of loss, only a profound stillness. Mom's body, animated only moments before, now appeared as a thing long hushed, an ancient monument. No definition of “time” seemed capable of spanning the difference. An official pronouncement was made, calls were initiated, the clan began to gather and the stillness faded into the background.
The watch was done.