Thursday, July 9, 2015

Death Bed Wisdom

They say that wisdom can be found in the most unexpected of places that she does not always dwell in dusty old books, well worn sayings, and that smoky myth of “common sense.” Perhaps the start of knowing wisdom is to see that there is no place where she is not. Elisabeth was 70, she lived in one room above and abandoned furniture store in the part of town the good folks avoid after dark. It was a home for women in recovery, recovery from drugs and alcohol, recovery from abuse and violence, recovery from lives misspent and lives mistreated. When I met Elisabeth cancer had already torn its way through her body, her blood tainted by AIDS, Her liver blackened by cirrhosis, and her lungs ceased by COPD. The life forced upon her was killing her and Elisabeth knew it. She faced that death heroically, beautifully, with her eyes wide open. In the end she welcomed the pale specter as an old friend. Elisabeth did what she could to mitigate the pain, she did not hesitate to take her meds or call the nurse for help. She did so not out of fear, but out of a desire to get the distractions of pain and uncomforted behind her so that she could get on with the business of living truly and dying well. She reconnected with a brother she had not spoken with in years. She told those she loved about that love, she made good on her debts, and forgave her debtors. She set up her own cremation and memorial services. Elisabeth offered final words of wisdom to those around her. She blessed her friends by letting them care for her. And when death arrived Elisabeth was able to say, “I have nothing left to do in this life but to die.” Something few can say, and even fewer can mean. Elisabeth was a 70 year old dying drug addict with aids and she had more to teach the world and myself about death and about life than any book, or class, or sermon ever could. In our patients are endless stores of wisdom. Fonts overflowing with lessons learned through struggle, and fires of life passed through. Many were burnt by life’s flames along the way, and many were left more beautiful for it. May we always be open to the wisdom and courage we are confronted with in death bed after death bed, and perhaps a piece, just a touch of who they were will become a part of us.
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