I witnessed a death at the Guest House on Saturday morning. It was the second death I’ve seen in my life. This man had lived 94 years and left behind a large, very loving family. I handled his lifeless body as the nursing assistant and I tenderly cleaned and dressed him. It’s astonishing what time and illness does to the human body. His gnarled and withered frame, swollen in some places, emaciated in others, was a real testament to a life lived. In this culture of excessive youth-is-beauty worship, I found his body to be reassuringly honest and real, and a powerful, even beautiful, expression of long life. His limbs were already cold and yet when we rolled him to his side, I could feel the remnants of his body’s warmth on his back. This body warmth was quite literally the last of his life’s energy and it was profound to feel it. I am still relating to my hands in a different way after feeling that.
With his family and other Zen Hospice workers, I participated in the ritual bathing offered there. One by one we gently cleansed his face, hands and feet with small cloths dipped in Yerba Santa tea. His family cried and laughed and told stories about him. Witnessing their love and grief, I found myself having trouble not bawling loudly, feeling my own experiences of love, grief and loss. And I stayed with myself and with them, bowing to this man’s body, and to his family, and to the mystery and mundanity of life and death. All things emerge new and unique, and then fall away never to return. I work to embrace and be at ease with the constant change, the impermanence of life, which this practice of being with those at the end of life so directly imparts.
Last week at hospice, “G” was feeling angry and frustrated about being unable to go out to eat. She is in a wheelchair but unable to get around by herself anymore, and she said she was feeling trapped and restless. I reflected back to her that it made perfect sense to me that she wanted to be able to go out and eat whatever she wanted whenever she wanted, that I value that too. I told her that I saw that she was frustrated at her loss of freedom and control over her life. We sat together in the garden while she smoked. At one point, she almost tapped her cigarette ash into her glass of soda and, trying to be helpful, I moved the glass away a bit and moved her ashtray closer. Sharply, she said she wanted to tap her ash into her soda (perhaps covering for her momentary lapse in perception). I said well, you probably shouldn’t drink it after that then. She snapped that she could do whatever she liked, and she promptly proceeded to tap her ash into her soda and then defiantly took a drink from it. I said, you’re right, it’s absolutely your choice. In that moment, this was her best assertion of control and autonomy, and I stood respectful witness to this powerful woman.
Today, she was more subdued and said she was dealing with fear and didn’t want to be left alone. She asked me to stay with her while she napped, asking repeatedly for my assurance that I wouldn’t leave her. I sat at her bedside and she frequently opened her eyes to make sure I was still there until finally I placed my hand on her arm so she could feel me there without having to check. She rested more peacefully for a while as I sat quietly with her. Later, we had a party for a visiting former volunteer and G joined us at the big table full of lively talk and good food, she seemed right at home, participating in life.
After the ridiculous amount of constant crisis in my life lately, I wasn’t sure if I was up to my shift at Zen Hospice today. But it turned out to be just the perfect thing to do.
I spent time with “S”, whom I’ve seen there for the last few weeks. She is a beautiful woman in her late 70s who appears to be little more than a small grouping of bones and skin but with lush hair and lovely eyes. We usually watch cooking shows together and talk about baking. And sometimes we talk about random subjects like the lives of pirates (she has some dementia – I actually do well with people who have dementia – I just roll along smoothly with whatever they’re talking about). She loves eating so I spend a lot of time going up and down the stairs to the kitchen and back to get her a piece of pie, or slices of cheese, or a bowl of soup, or a fig. I love watching her eat, she enjoys her food with great relish and gratitude. Today she told me that she wishes she could get well and go back to the way she used to be. She said she used to be athletic and that she lived in the mountains. One of her favorite things to do was to run in the early mornings in the clear mountain air, happily alone in nature. I love imagining her that way.
I also spent hours today with a woman who said she is going to die tonight. She was in a great deal of pain and was reduced to just emaciated limbs and a big swollen belly (“a touch of cancer” she said, and also joked that she was pregnant with twins). We spoke of the full range of life, of the pain and the beauty, of watching our children suffer, of husbands who cheat, of art and music, of love for family, of the joys of sugar, of the soft light in the room. We expressed gratitude for it all, including for our hands and for brownies. And we wished that all children everywhere be well-fed. We repeated phrases over and over again, like prayers or magic spells. She said she was ready to go. I fed her cheesecake with my (gloved) fingers and helped the nurse’s aide change her diapers. The gratitude was flowing in every direction from all of us, filling the room.
This work feels so natural to me. I still feel connected to these women, and I do not know if they will be there next week when I return, or last through the night tonight. I am loving being there with these lovely people as they near the ends of their lives; it’s the right place for me to be.
After my first Zen Hospice training today, I’m realizing that part of the practice is to not make the hospice residents a special and separate “other.” Since death and dying are mostly hidden from regular life, I can see that there is an impulse to project all kinds of stories onto people who are dying that make them somehow different from the rest of “us.” But they are just humans engaged in a very natural process, one that we all will experience firsthand one way or another. Dying does not make people special – it’s a meaningful time of life, but they’re just humans like we all are. So the practice will be to not “other-ize” them and instead just be humans together with them.
Finishing 40 hours of intense training for volunteering with Zen Hospice Project, I feel myself stepping into a deeper field of experience, meaning, feeling and practice. My intention is to expand my capacity to compassionately and lovingly BE with what IS. Such a honor.