Wednesday, May 27, 2015

I Was Thirsty

Does a patient or their family every offer you a bottle of water, or a cup of coffee when you show up for a visit? Do you ever think about why? What does someone who can’t be sure of their next breath care if you’re a little parched or in need of a shot caffeine? Shouldn’t they worry about their own issues before they get involved with yours? Maybe, maybe not. Questions like these fail to take into account the essential fact that as people we are more than our basic needs. That caring for something, be it a person, or a dog, or a garden, work of art, or anything else, is at the center of our humanity. I visited a bereaved man last week; a man who since the loss of his wife has struggled to meet even his own basic needs. I went to care for him, but before I would offer active listening or talk about coping mechanisms, he offered me something to drink. This man, who had struggled for weeks to get out of bed, had made a special trip to the store just to pick something up, to have something to offer. This small act was a great kindness, a good deed. Where are such acts of kindness created? What led this man and the thousands of others before and after him to reach out even when they were in need of a hand? These acts of care come from the same place that pushes people to throw baby showers for co-workers and to spend their days and their nights caring for the dying. What brings about these good works, these acts of care, is born in the very deepest part of us: the soul of our souls, our secret heart. The place where the divine resides in each of us and where the love and care are breathed into existence. The very center of our being is the source of love for the other. The greatest thing we can do for another is to recognize that secret heart, that temple to the holy in each of them. To know the infinite love that has chosen to make a home in their soul, and allow them to see that love in each of us.
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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A thirtieth of a second

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Mary looked at a picture of herself at a party, a candid shot with her at the center. It was taken a month after her husband, her love, her partner, her friend, had died. The image was of a graduation party for a nephew of hers. In the picture, people were smiling, dancing, drinking, eating, living. Mary was smiling too, but a year later as she examined the photo, a thirtieth of second - a sliver of time, Mary saw in that moment a difference between herself and the other partygoers; something that separated them. From her husband’s diagnosis until sometime after his death, Mary had lived in a fog. Her mind, dulled by fear and then grief, a thick haze stood as a veil between her and the world. In the image, she was among her friends and family, but separate from them; in this world but touching nothing. Even as she could see this about herself in the picture, she noticed a difference in the eyes of those around her. A few sets of eye were planted squarely on Mary; friends and family looking on, their gazes thick with a sympathy that bordered on sorrow. They saw her as a ragged thing, once beautiful now forever scared and broken. Most just looked way, as if to cast your vision on someone who so recently had been acquainted with death would be to invite the shadow into their lives. We can see with different eyes; we who know the unceasing and pervasive presence of death and dying in the world; we for whom the final breath is not exotic but common. We can see those losing and those who have lost with eyes of care, of empathy not sympathy, of love and not fear. We can see them not as suffering but as people who suffer, not as the grieving but as people living with grief. We can cast a gaze that sees the person before the pain, the life before the loss and perhaps in the reflection of our eyes, those who loved and lost can find a glimmer of hope for the future.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Mother’s Day

I don’t know what it is like to be a mother. I can’t image carrying new life in my guts, or the process of pushing that life out into the world, but I do know the commitment it takes just to keep a child alive. They say that human gestation is nine months in the womb and two to three years outside of it, longer than any other creature walking God’s green earth. We are born broken, we are born weak, unable to sustain our own existence for more than a matter of hours. It’s only through the strength of our mothers that we survive. To be a mother is to continue to care for your child. To care for them when they are good and cute, sweet and clean, and to care for them when they are vicious and mean, selfish and dirty. To be a mother is care for a child when you would rather not, when you cannot, when it hurts. To be a mother is to care for a child because if you don’t, if the child is left to their own devices, that child will not live. Just to see a child live until adulthood is a task beyond comprehension, motivated by a thick, rich, love beyond explanation or end dates. Motherhood is to give all of yourself so that the other may live. By virtue of the simple fact they are alive, we can be sure that those who have entered our care, at least for a time, have been on the receiving end of this love. Our patient’s very life proves that for a moment they were at the center of another’s universe. They were the complete focus and total recipient of another’s love and care. May each of us take a lesson from the billions of sainted mothers who have lived and loved in this world. May those in our charge find a home at the center of our worlds, if only for a moment. May they be the focus of our care as if their very lives depended on it, because in many ways they do. May we be as mothers to those we serve, giving deeply of ourselves, so that the other may know life and once again feel maternal love.
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Thursday, May 7, 2015

Unafraid in the Land of the Dying

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On Wednesdays, my kid and I go to the cemetery. If it’s nice outside and we have the time, we out among the tombs and graves, and he plays. Bouncing from headstone to headstone and digging in the dirt, the boy loves the graveyard. For a child the land of the dead holds no terror, the bodies beneath his feet no fright. When it’s time to leave, the child pitches a holy fit same as when it’s time to leave Grandma’s or the park. He’s sad to go home because he has so much fun with the dead. We go to the Lutheran cemetery, which sits directly north of the Jewish cemetery and south of the Bohemian graveyard, just east of First Ave. These cemeteries are located here because this is the spot where the train line used to end nearly a century ago. It was the last stop for Chicago public transportation. In other words, the cemeteries were formed as far from the city and the living as possible without being out of reach. You can judge a society by how they treat their animals and their dead. We aren’t bad to our pets, but we want as little to do with our dead as possible. We like them just on the edge of our vision, the land of the dead a blurry haze deep in our periphery. Often the same goes for the dying, tucked away in hospitals or facilities removed from the land of the living even before they draw their last breath. Like the cemeteries, the dying are pushed just to the limits of our reach. You who care for the dying serve as a foil to this. Part of your duty is to open the gates to the land of the dead and dying and let a little life in. It is through your kindness, your bravery, and your love that people can become a little more like my child who walks unafraid in the land of the dying. Then they, like my son, can find a measure of comfort among the tombs. In helping others come to the dying, in helping them to stand by the bed side, we allow those leaving this world to finish their days well and loved, surrounded by those they care for in the land of the living.