a vehicle of transmutation,
a path of release
and a channel of communication.
On this Christian day of resurrection I give you the following essay:
In my capacity as Coordinator of the Patient Support Team at Franklin Memorial Hospital, I visited and provided comfort to the dying, to amputees, to those with cancer, with AIDS and other life threatening diseases.
Dying is a hell of a business. And each person chooses their own way of doing it. One of the shocking things was seeing that quite a few leave this world in a total state of denial. No preparation, no reflection, no final words to loved ones. The TV in their mind plays continuously throughout their final experience.
Of the many people I counseled, several cases stick to my mind. The very first patient I saw was one of them. He was a doctor dying of cancer. I arrived in a room bare of any personal belongings. Everything was spotlessly in place, even his bed was unruffled. He spoke softly with some effort, describing to me precisely at what stage of development his cancer was in. Very near death, his attention was withdrawn from the world around him. His wife entered as we spoke and she asked who I was and what my duties were. "You are not needed here," she told me, "I take care of him." I turned to him and I saw on his face a look that explained everything. Not a word was spoken, but I understood that his wife was a burden to him, that he felt responsible for her and that he would endure her ministrations because of it.
And he did. I would see this man at death's door being wheeled outdoors for fresh air by a woman who could not let go of him, who could not do what every loved one must do, and that is to give permission to the dying. She was the doctor wife and without him she held no importance. She could not let go of that. I saw him several times afterward. Always in that same impersonal room with the unruffled bed. He was resigned to his fate, totally isolated and trapped in the structure he'd made of his life. It was not an easy death.
Then there was a woman. I will call her Mary. I do not remember what was wrong with her. When I came into the picture she had already been informed she would not go back home, not ever again. The staff was looking to find her nursing home facilities. The family was ransacking her home as she lay in the hospital. Her condition was such that she was in excruciating pain and medication was no relief. We had a staff meeting about what could be done to help her with her doctor, the shift nurses, the physical therapist, myself and members of my team, everyone involved in her care. Having someone with her seemed to help so we set up shifts to keep her company. It was very hard on me being with someone in such pain. I brought her tapes of soothing nature music, I read to her, rubbed her body. Then I would go home in the evening thoroughly drained and demoralized.
One day I walked in to the hospital and when I went to visit Mary something unusual happened. I winked at her. A spontaneous act which she did not take kindly to. What I was doing was disrespectful to a dying woman, surely. But yet we had arrived at a moment of truth that she was trying to avoid. What was this intuitive truth that I had stumbled on like the resolution of a koan? She was complicit in her method of dying. We were both playing a part in a play. The pain was real, there was no denying that, the attention was real. She might have chosen otherwise, me too. That very day a medication was found that worked on her and shortly thereafter she was transferred to a nursing home.