Waiting for Tomorrow are Ya’?

Originally posted 8/08/2012

Some day, you’re going to apologize to your neighbor (who hates you, by the way) for backing over his cat and blaming it on the mail carrier.

Some day, your humdrum existence will magically transform into the fairy tale life you have always dreamed of.

I hate my horrible life

Some day, you will hit the lottery and buy your neighbor a new cat. Okay, you won’t do that because you’ll move to a deserted island where you won’t have any neighbors.

If you believe one morning you’ll just wake up and your butt will have fallen off as you slept – that’s right – you’re delusional. (You might want to just lay off the chocolate darlin’)

Wanna know where I’m at as I write this and why my thoughts went were they did? I am sitting with a dying hospice patient. I’ll call him Fred. I can’t show you a picture of him for obvious reasons, but I can show you a picture of the wall I’m staring at in his room. It’s 2:30 am and I have been staring at this wall for two hours.

Bare Walls

I have been visiting Fred for about five months now. He has little family and no one visits him. He was in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease when I first met him, so we were never able to communicate. I have no idea what he did for a living, but, for now, he is my teacher, like all the patients I see.

I know what you’re thinking. How could someone who has lost the ability to respond to their environment or converse with anyone teach you anything? How could they impart words of wisdom like Mahatma Gandhi; shine light on injustice like Martin Luther King; inspire Jesus’ call to “serve the least of these” like Mother Theresa? Well, they can’t….

They can do more – at least for me – in this moment.

When I meet a new patient the first thing I do is look at the pictures in their rooms. Some, like my dear mother-in-law, have their walls and shelves cluttered with family pictures. They make for great conversation. But, here’s my buddy Fred with four blank walls.

What am I supposed to do with that? I have discovered that that is the wrong question. The real question is: what is God wanting to teach me here?

It is no coincidence that at this very time I am also reading a most profound book by Kathleen Dowling Singh, The Grace in Aging. I read her other “most profound” book during my clinicals, The Grace in Dying.

So, what am I finally learning at this late stage in my life? What I have grown to believe from Gandhi, King, and Mother Theresa, has been personified by Singh and Fred.

What I am reading in Singh’s book moves from words on a page to experience that reaches the depth of my heart as I sit here with a dying man.

I got up in the middle of the night to come here because I believe no one should die alone. I have grown to appreciate that this is Holy Ground; that God is truly present here and he calls out to anyone with ears to hear, “You’re gonna die too! Maybe even today”. Which makes me laugh (maybe I’m just silly tired) because I remembered this hysterical cartoon.

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At this stage in life it’s about time for us to be getting our act together before it’s too late! Don’t you think? To stop obsessing over things that don’t…actually, never did…matter. Stop dwelling on old hurts, lost opportunities, and someone else’s expectations. Stop striving for more and more of what someone else will trash before you’re cold in your grave. Stop lusting after useless stuff. Stop trying to control everything. Stop shadow boxing.

Singh tells us:

When we are deeply aware of our own impermanence, every fleeting moment is recognized as precious. Our desire to be present in each moment amplifies. Contemplating the fact that we truly do not know if we will still be alive in this human body with the next breath, we can witness a stunning decrease in our attachment to and interest in anything but now.  

Meditating on death instantly calls us to question on the deepest of levels. What am I doing? What do I want? What does this all mean? What is it all about? Who or what is the “I” that is asking the questions?

Our desire to explore, to inquire, to see, intensifies in urgency….Contemplating our own mortality…our precariously impermanent existence, can call us to complete and thorough accountability. It can call us to instant reordering, a rearranging of our priorities and our intentions. A deep opening to our own mortality brings us to our knees and down to the nitty-gritty. It blocks off all of our habitual detours into denial. It forces us to face the way we’ve lived our lives, the choices we’ve made, the polestars we’ve chosen.

Thank you, Fred. In your dying you are teaching me how to truly live while there is still breath in me.

Now, go in peace…I pray…into the hands of our loving and merciful God. I’ll be right behind you.

Hell Begins…

(Originally posted 5/15/2012

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“Hell begins on the day when God grants us a clear vision of all that we might have achieved, of all the gifts which we have wasted, of all that we might have done which we did not do” Gian Carlo Menotti

In January of 1994 my mother died of heart disease. Eight months later, my father died of cancer. Because they hadn’t belonged to a church, their funerals were what I would call generic, with a minister provided by the funeral parlor.

Prior to my mother’s wake, the minister gathered together all twenty of us kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids. He asked us to tell him something about this woman he’d be eulogizing the next day. He wanted to be able to relate some happy memories of my mother at her funeral. In complete silence, we looked at each other, incredulous, thinking, “Come on, somebody. Come up with something!” Digging into the recesses of our minds, we slogged through the anger and the sorrow, trying desperately to recall a long-forgotten quip or enlightening conversation, maybe a silly habit, a favorite joke, one special Christmas tradition, or what about that time when…?

Nothing.

At the end of my mother’s life, her family had absolutely nothing to say about her. Well, nothing you would say at a funeral – you think it, but you don’t say it. The minister, quickly seeing that there’d be no wealth of joyful material from which to draw his comments, politely excused himself to go hunt up some old familiar one-size-fits-all sermon. That experience left me numb.

My father’s death that autumn was like suffering through a bad movie for the second time: same cast of characters, same setting, same faulty plot line. Again, the twenty of us couldn’t come up with a thing. The silence was deafening – and, yes, I was angry. I wanted to shout, “How could the two of you do this? How could you inhabit this earth for more than seventy years, at the epicenter of a family you supposedly loved, and not leave behind even the faintest happy memory? How could you journey through your lives without touching anyone else’s?”

I hadn’t expected this level of grief. I didn’t understand it. How could I grieve for the parents who had left me nothing to miss? Eventually, though, I came to see that what I was grieving was the absence of love. All my life, I longed for my parents’ love, but I had just been fooling myself. And now…that longing would remain unfulfilled.

Those two impersonal funerals, and my indignant response to them, proved pivotal to the changes in my life that would follow. I was inspired to set two goals that I might otherwise have shrugged off: To seek the love that would draw me closer to God, and to share that love with others, especially my family. I wanted to make sure that I’d have a different funeral someday, and a different legacy, than either of my parents. I wanted to be remembered as someone who had loved, someone who had honestly and openly confessed to others when I’d failed or fallen short, someone who had needed and known God’s mercy. And I wanted everyone who attended my funeral to have a smile on his face! – a smile that reflected the joy we’d shared, the compassion we’d known, the forgiveness we’d received, and the love we’d never doubted.

As Scripture tells us, “…if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20)

After determining my two goals and reviewing my life accordingly, I could see that a mountain would indeed have to be moved. And, in all honesty, I also felt that it would be impossible!

That was fifteen years ago, and I can tell you with absolute conviction that, not only is it NOT impossible, it is certain; it is God’s promise to us and it will be fulfilled by Him! He simply needs our mustard seed, shaky knees, sweaty palms “okay, I’ll give it a try” response – with no assurance of the process – simply the faith to trust. The outcome is not ours to know. However, it is God’s already set in place plan  if we’re willing to cooperate with Him..

Perhaps, unlike everyone else in all of creation, you somehow are privy to the date and time of your demise. Even then, you may, or may not, have LOTS of time to fix all the messes you have made in your life and the lives of everyone around you. Otherwise, it’s probably not a good idea to procrastinate on this one.

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CDC Concedes: No Known Cure for #1 Cause of Death

(Originally posted 10/17/13)

It is now confirmed after extensive research by the Center for Disease Control that everyone who starts breathing will eventually stop. If you’re holding out for a miracle cure I have some bad news for you. Are you sitting down? Stop breathing and you’re gonna die. So, stop breathing at your own peril…

DUH!

Do we really need the Center for Disease Control to tell us that we are ALL going to die?

Perhaps.

Apparently, in our western culture anyway, many believe that if they ignore that 900 pound gorilla in the room, death will never darken their door.

Not so, folks. Sorry to be the one to dampen your dreams of living forever, at least here on this earth, in this body. It just ain’t gonna happen. Why does it matter? Because there’s a reason we refuse to accept that death is another part of our journey. Sadly, if we can’t bring ourselves to face our own mortality then those following us may be doomed to that same fear and uncertainty.

There could be any number of reasons we avoid the inevitable. Pick one or chose your own:

  • I am afraid of the unknown, and death is the ultimate unknown.  If someone, anyone, would just come back and tell me what it’s like…sigh…

Remember the rich man begging from hell that his five brothers be told of his torment so they wouldn’t end up there? The rich man said, “Then let me ask you, Father: Send him to the house of my father where I have five brothers, so he can tell them the score and warn them so they won’t end up here in this place of torment.” Abraham answered, “They have Moses and the Prophets to tell them the score. Let them listen to them.” “I know, Father Abraham,” he said, “but they’re not listening (my emphasis). If someone came back to them from the dead, they would change their ways.” Abraham replied, “If they won’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, they’re not going to be convinced by someone who rises from the dead.” Luke 16:27-31

  • I kinda like it here with all my _____________(fill in the blank)
  • I don’t want my husband remarrying some snarky woman who will raise my children. (That used to be my favorite. Never mind that I was that snarky woman!)
  • I wanna be here for: graduations, weddings, and grandkids. Oh yeah, and the anniversary when you get all those cool red vases and candy dishes you never use.
  • I have lots of plans: I have to finish school, finish a marathon, finish the dishes.
  • And, what I believe is probably the biggest reason: fear that my sins will come back to haunt me on that great Judgment Day. They are surely logged somewhere: I never forgave _________, I never asked forgiveness from ________, I never admitted to stealing ________, or lying about _________, or coveting ___________. And – sin of sins – I missed Mass on October 23rd, 1974.

It’s all there. All my ugliness. I really intended to clean that up “one of these days”, just never got around to it because there was lots of time. I mean I never considered that I was going to actually die at an inopportune time.

  • All the above.
  • None of the above.

Death is Cousin Eddie: obnoxious, showing up unannounced, making impossible demands, and flushing our sewage in the middle of the street for everyone’s viewing pleasure.

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Beauty, for sure, but ugliness as well, manifests itself during the dying process: ours, that of the person dying, or both, as the world watches in horror and disbelief. “Whoa, didn’t see that coming!”

A good example was the funeral of my grandmother. With a room full of friends and relatives my mother and aunt began to fight over who would get my grandmothers…ready?…wheelchair. Not millions of dollars or prized possessions, but her wheelchair. There you go. What’s your worst memory? I’m sure you have one. We all have at least one.

As I sit here and write today, tears well up in my eyes from an experience I had just last night. As a Hospice volunteer, when called by my supervisor I will sit vigil with dying patients. I consider it a blessing and a privilege to be in such a holy place at such a time in a dying person’s life, and to be with their loved ones if they’re there. Some are not by choice, as was the case last night. For obvious reasons I cannot share details, but I can tell you this – she was a believer, her husband was not. They had no children and no other family. When her husband was told that she would likely not make it through the night he refused to go see her.

Now, I have no way of knowing why. She had dementia and was not coherent enough for me to understand her needs or the source of her torment. I can only speculate after reading volumes of examples from the experiences of hospice RN’s. While appreciating that trying to fully understand what is happening during the dying process is impossible because it is one of God’s great mysteries, we do have hints of what may be taking place. For example: some people will not die until, say, a son from out-of-town arrives, or until a beloved spouse says they will be okay and actually gives them “permission” to die. They may be waiting to die until a loved one leaves the room.I am slowly witnessing myself glimpses of the mystery of God that unfolds within the dying process.

We just welcomed our thirteenth grandbaby two days ago. YEA! What an amazing event!!! Even at number thirteen, I am still awestruck by the magnificence of the beginning of life. Aren’t we all? Isn’t it just breathtaking? (Update 8/30/20150, we now have fourteen!)

But the end of life? Not so much.

I’m going to try my best, as inadequate as this may be, to summarize what I have grown to understand about death and dying. Bear with me.

Up until, and at that moment of birth we are most connected to the very core of our Being – God. Remember, God knew us before we were born: Jeremiah 1:5, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I sanctified you; I ordained you a prophet to the nations.” Then, so many things go awry don’t they?  We lose our way, we push away, “cut the cord” I suppose you could say, and go our own way.

Then the end comes. (I told you that was going to happen, right? Okay, just wanted to be sure I didn’t leave that little detail out.) So, guess what happens then? God shows up, if you will, to bring us back to our Core; back to His very Essence; back home. It’s mysterious and glorious. But, if we’re not ready; if we’re afraid, we will fight it with all we have left.

We so often struggle getting to that place of peace and trust in the process because of all of our “stuff”. And that’s what I believe was happening to the woman I sat with last night. This is what I know: she’s a believer, her husband is not (huge problem for her). They both were very ill and at some point promised not to put the other in a nursing home. That’s all I know for sure. The rest is speculation.

Her breathing would slow, then race, then stop – over and over again. She would seem to be peaceful one moment and then cry out inaudibly. What was she trying so desperately to say? Was it physical pain or emotionally torment? I don’t know. I prayed for her and her husband, and at times that would make her cry out. At one point, she said clearly, “Pray”. So I did. Is she still with us today? I don’t know as yet. But, here’s what is so important about what I have shared with you: Life should be lived each day as if it’s the last, because it may very well be. If you and I would just accept that fact and live accordingly wouldn’t we make our little world a better place while we’re here and possibly make our own dying something beautiful and memorable for our loved ones?

When it’s my turn to take that final journey I want my kids, my fourteen grandkids, and fifteen great-grandkids (updated 7/27/20) to witness the glory of God at His best and to not fear their own journey. I want to die with grace and surety that there is a loving and merciful God waiting for me with open arms. And I want to hear Him say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” (Matt. 25:21) How cool will that be?!