When I saw the small ad for a hospice social worker I was zapped, the current straight from the hand of the merciful goddess into my broken heart. It was the year after my mother’s death, and my intuition was screaming that only the dying could bring me out of the land of shadow and back into the light.
I sat across from the man tasked with interviewing me. Native American with a skinny dark braid, a Hawaiian shirt, and a slow easy smile.
So, he said, why do you want this job?
I was sweating. Under my arms. Between my legs, between my toes.
OK I said. This is no time for bullshit. My mother died bitter and sorrowing, cut off from love and now I need to be in the same room with death again. Maybe a distant cousin to the death I just spent time with, or a step-kid. Whatever. But I need to know there are other ways, better ways, holier more sacred ways, more filled with light and love ways to die. If I don’t I’m afraid I’ll turn in my keys and shut down my life.
He drummed his fingers on the metal desk. Any experience?
He lined his pencils up so that all the points were shoulder to shoulder. Personally I would have gone with the erasers but whatever.
I waited. I kept sweating. A small fan blew the papers around on the desk. I held my breath.
When can you start? He finally asked and I exhaled.
And sweet jesus what a ride. The doors opened and I walked into living rooms, bathrooms, kitchens, tiny screened in porches, and the dying were there. In bed, in wheelchairs, on the pot, holding onto the kitchen counter while they struggled to make a cup of instant Folgers.
They were toothless, hairless, limbless. They were finally without one small grain of hope. They were going to die. We both knew it and it made everything hugely tragic and hugely funny. They told me bawdy jokes, the ones their chaste Catholic wives of 60 years had banned from the house. They scratched their balls or showed me their scars. They were so far gone into dementia that when they saw me, all they could say was woohoo woohoo and I’d say woohoo back and we both were so happy with this exchange. I brought them the green chile cheese burgers they craved, then held what little hair they had left back as they heaved over a bowl.
Their every breath was labored, their legs no longer worked, some were blind and mostly deaf. They spent a good percentage of their day in the land of the spirits. And still, I began to understand why it was worth it for them to live another day. The great grandbabies that were brought by for a visit, the nephews and nieces who sent flowers on Mother’s Day, I saw a thread of love connecting people that was sturdier than it looked. The love that kept them here one more day, one more sunrise. They knew they were dying and they were filled with despair for things left undone, with regrets for what had been left unspoken. They knew they were dying and they were filled with grace.
They burned from the inside, lit up with last minute love, like a treasure you’d find at the bottom of a bargain bin. This was love that had nowhere to go except into the void, love that would never make love again, or eat a steak or run on a beach. Love that would die when they died but for now they burned with it and they let me love them back with everything I had, everything my mother had refused. They were the elders of our tribe, on fire with wisdom. And when it was time, I saw them open their arms to their long departed husbands, children, grandmothers, the beloveds who had come to walk them through the veil.
They brought me out of the land of death into the world of the living.
They taught me to kneel to the mystery of my life, to let grief dance with wild joy.
They taught me to ask for mercy and forgiveness from the earth, the trees, the animals before it was too late.
They showed me I could trust my most decent and compassionate impulses, and that I could find meaning in the calling of my heart.
They offered me kindness and generosity and told me how easy it could be to forgive myself. They asked me to try, for their sake.
Now that they have passed into the realm of the ancestors, I light candles for them on the solstice. I put out soft candies and good whiskey, and from the far reaches of darkness they arrive with victory songs, beating drums and trailing clouds of glory, a radiant bunch of gypsies come to bring back the light.
|My efforts now turn|
from trying to outrun suffering
to accepting love wherever
I can find it.
Stripped of causes and plans
and things to strive for,
I have discovered everything
I could need or ask for
is right here—
in flawed abundance.
We cannot eliminate hunger,
but we can feed each other.
We cannot eliminate loneliness,
but we can hold each other.
We cannot eliminate pain,
but we can live a life
There is nothing to do
and nowhere to go.
we can do everything
and go anywhere.
(Mark Nepo, b. 1951)