close to my age

Yesterday was quiet and deep at the Zen Hospice Guest House. A few residents were really struggling with pain and two of them died later in the day. One of them was a man, “N”, only nine years older than me. We had had a couple of lovely conversations over the past few weeks and it impacted me to see him clearly on his way out. When first we talked on his arrival weeks ago, he expressed a lot of deep hurt and frustration about the greed and corruption of the world. A very sensitive and intelligent man, he said what he saw up close of the insanity of the world had made him sick; he was dying of cancer. When next I saw him two weeks later (I missed a week due to illness) he was clearly sicker but also radiant. He said he had had a transformation being at the Guest House through experiencing firsthand the profound kindness of everyone there. It had opened in him a renewed deep appreciation for the goodness of people and a strong desire to live. He said he felt immense gratitude for each morning he woke up still alive. The change in his attitude was remarkable and delightful, although seeing his lower limbs hideously swollen and “weeping” with accumulating fluids from his failing organs was a grim sign. As I left our long conversation that day, he reached out to take my hand in both of his – I could feel him drinking up our connection. I too noticed my attachment to this sweet man, which I find can form so quickly with residents.

N was unconscious most of the day yesterday. Each breath was a strain with very long pauses between. As I sat with him, I counted seconds between each of his breaths, sometimes counting up to 11 before the next effortful inhale. I noticed how beautifully shaped his hands were, how young and smooth his skin was. The majority of the residents that I have known in my short time at the Guest House have been in their 70s or older. This man was in his mid-50s. There is also a new woman at the Guest House six years younger than me dying of cancer. I identify with these two people whose ages are close to mine; I recognize my current self in them in a way I don’t with older residents. And without the layer of older age, the effects of their illness stand out more. Looking into their faces, the suffering caused by their sickness is very stark and clear. This brought up fear in me for the first time.

I think because I have been sick for most of the last month with a bad cold followed by pneumonia, I felt more vulnerable and a tiny bit closer to understanding their experience. However I knew I would return to health and well-being whereas they would never feel good again. The rawness of this reality is not something I can easily put into words to make a tidy story. It touched on my most intense fear, the fear of suffering that never ends except in death. No other relief. I can just take heart in the tenderness, compassion and unflinching care that residents receive from the staff and volunteers at Zen Hospice. I sat with N for a long time as his body was slowly and painfully shutting down; I can only hope that when my time comes, there will be a caring someone to sit with me as well.

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