Tag Archives: Christianity

The envelope

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I don’t know why I wanted – no, didn’t want, absolutely did not want, but needed – to see my mother’s body. It’s not as though her death was a surprise. Although it happened sooner than expected, I was not in denial, I didn’t need proof … and I had a gut-deep dread at the thought of looking at her, facing the oozing reality of death doing its work inside her. I couldn’t shake the fear that she might be swollen, or discolored, or just fundamentally dead-looking. Forgive me for saying this … I imagined she might smell.

I knew these fears were irrational and silly – we of the first world are shielded from the obnoxious aspects of death. It has become sad but pretty. We have a supermarket-sized range of choices as to how we hide the evidence of our mortality, from worm-defying embalming, to composting (my preferred option. Marmeee would have chosen it too, but we’d already cremated her by the time I learned it was possible – and I still don’t know whether it’s done in South Africa).

HOYA (2).JPG

Things Marmeee loved: Gardens and gardening and South African native plants. She and her brothers sponsored a bench in Kirstenbosch Garden, in Cape Town, in memory of my grandmother, who used to work there. We – my siblings and I – will put one at Walter Sisulu Nature Reserve, outside Johannesburg, for sitting on while remembering her and the Olde Buzzard. This picture is of the Hoya vine that her mother started from a cutting, and that Marmeee cherished for 50 years.

And yet, despite all logic, the thought of looking at my mother’s dead body filled me with cringing dismay. My resistance was just a little less powerful than the compulsion I felt to see it. I remembered all the stories I’d read or heard of near-death or out-of-body experiences, and imagined her disincorporated self hanging around, waiting for me to come and … what? I don’t know. Pay my final respects?

As I write this I can almost hear the derisive hoot of laughter with which she’d have greeted such an idea. “Your respects?” she’d have exclaimed. “You’ve never been respectful in your life. You call me fubsy!” Which is only partly true. I may have been quite good at concealing my respect for her, but she knew very well it was there. As for fubsy … well, she was, and so am I. It’s a Tookish trait!

Well, I digress. I’d have preferred to get The Viewing over and done with right away, but thanks to a missed flight and then a 12-hour delay in Heathrow I didn’t reach Johannesburg until Sunday evening, when the undertaker was closed.

The next day, Monday, I met my father and my sisters, the Egg and the Kat, at the Kat-House, to go through Marmeee’s clothes and choose something pretty for her to wear. The Kat chose a white blouse with embroidered giraffes that she had given her. We added a pair of cotton capris and some underwear. I vetoed shoes – who wears shoes when you’re lying down? – but insisted on socks to keep her toes warm. The Old Buzzard chose her most beautiful shawl – a big, soft, fringed square in her signature shades of grey, blue and lilac.

On Tuesday the Egg, the Kat and I took the clothes to the undertaker. We asked for a simple pine box and a cremation, definitely no embalming, no fuss. No, we didn’t wish to attend the cremation. But … I took a deep breath. “I would like to see her,” I said. They said they would have her ready for me the following day.

On Wednesday morning my bestie, Twiglet, picked me up. I made her promise to come in with me. “I’m scared,” I told her.

“Don’t be. It’ll be okay – you’ll see,” she replied gently.

“I’ve never seen a human dead body before,” I explained. “And this is my mother!”

“My Mom was my first too,” she said.

At the mortuary, the receptionist called a man in a black suit to lead us to the viewing room. His expression was somber, and it bothered me that he seemed sadder than I was. I was too anxious to be sad. I had absolutely no idea what I would do, how I would react. Would I sob hysterically? Fling myself on her coffin? Laugh – as I so hideously did when I was 12 years old and told my classmates my little dog had died, run over by a car, and they all thought I was an awful person because the only expression my face remembered for days after it happened was a ghastly rictal grin? Our escort opened the door to the viewing room, then stepped back to wait in the hallway, head bowed and hands quietly folded.

The room was bright and spacious, with curved rows of empty seats and large windows. Near the front, resting on a dais, was the coffin – pale, unvarnished pine, with rope handles. Although plain it was nicely made – sturdy, with rounded edges and a few simple carved details. Viewed from the doorway you couldn’t see the coffin shape, and it looked like something my mother might have chosen to keep on her back stoep – an attractive box for storing gardening tools that was also a good height for sitting upon with a cup of tea.

I walked about halfway down the aisle between the chairs, then sat down. “What am I supposed to do?” I asked Twiglet. “I don’t even know how I’m supposed to feel.” She just hugged me and waited for me to figure it out. “Okay,” I said at last. “Let’s do this.”

Things she loved - OB

Things Marmeee loved: Book stores. Coffee shops. The Olde Buzzard. Earrings, like the ones he gave her just before we took this picture.

I marched up to the coffin and looked down into it.

The woman inside was lying with her head tilted back, so that her chin jutted sharply toward the ceiling. She didn’t look entirely comfortable. I wanted to lift her head, tuck a pillow under it … but I didn’t have a pillow. Also, I was worried that if I lifted her head her whole body might rise, rigid as a plank. I don’t know how long rigor mortis lasts, and it didn’t seem appropriate to google it just then.

Her eyes were closed, and her lips were thin and stern. I wondered whether the mortician had used glue to fix them shut.

I touched her cheek. She was icy. I realized that she had been packed in bags of ice, and yanked my mind away from the reason this was necessary. I stroked her hand. It was cold… cold.

Her beautiful shawl had been tucked around her shoulders, but was a little bunched up. I patted it smooth, snugged it around her. I wondered whether I should kiss her, but I really didn’t want to.

I went back to where Twiglet was sitting and plunked down into a seat. “I don’t feel anything,” I said. “She’s not here. That over there -” I gestured toward the coffin. “It’s just an empty envelope.” Twiglet nodded, and hugged me again.

“So … okay. Let’s go,” I said. I stood to leave, but found myself wandering back to the coffin. I felt restless, vaguely ashamed that I didn’t want to cry or wail, angry that something so momentous could happen and leave me bereft of words or feelings.The shawl still didn’t look quite right. I rearranged it again, positioning it so that one of the embroidered giraffes on her blouse was visible.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” I said. “She’d be royally pissed at us for burning this shawl.”

Twiglet gave me the side-eye. “I’m sure they’d give it back if you asked them to.”

“No, I don’t want it – it’s not mine to take. But I hope someone steals it before they cremate her. She’d like that – knowing it was making another woman feel pretty.”

“Well,” Twiglet said. “Who knows? This is Africa. Maybe that’s one of the perks of the job.”

We were chuckling as we walked through the door, down the corridor, and out into the sunlit parking lot. Behind us, I knew, machinery had hummed to life and the dais, the coffin and its chilly, empty contents had sunk to the basement, out of sight. But the thought of it no longer scared me. I felt a sense of release. I was glad I had seen her body. It had served her well for many years, and so had earned our gratitude and respect, but she was no longer in it. She had written the letter of her life, signed it “With love”, and had quite clearly moved on.

valerie1

Things Marmeee loved: Me

A beautiful day

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A beautiful day

I called my mother from Los Angeles Airport while waiting to board my plane. It was around 7.00pm on the Pacific coast, about 4.00am in Johannesburg, and the WhatsApp message the Kat had sent while I was en route from Seattle to LA said she was awake, and alert for the first time in several days.

She was in the cancer ward at Johannesburg’s Donald Gordon Hospital. My sisters, the Kat and the Egg, were with her. She had been there for a couple weeks already, but a bureaucratic hairball had blocked me from returning to South Africa. At last that morning someone in the Department of Home Affairs coughed up permission for me to go, and I hurled clothes into a couple of suitcases and the Hubbit drove me across the state to Seattle. We arrived just in time for me to miss my plane to Heathrow, but I found another flight that went Sea-Tac – LAX – Heathrow – JNB and took only 12 additional hours to get there.

Marmee's Baskin Robbins boob solution

Laughter. An insatiable appetite for ice cream. A bawdy sense of humor. Delight in the little things. That’s my Marmeee.

The plan for the Marmeee that day was a procedure to draw fluid from from her overburdened lungs. The revised plan for me was to arrive at Johannesburg International Airport on Sunday morning, where the Girl Child would meet me and take me straight to the hospital. After that, my sisters and I would plan where she should go to recuperate – to Hospice or to somebody’s home – until she was ready to return to the retirement complex where she lived with my father.

Plans are so easy to make. You just say them out loud, or write them down, and … voila! Life goes right on happening.

My personal short-term plan was to chivvy her off that ridiculous hospital bed and whisk her away to eat ice cream. Oh, how she loved ice cream! No matter how satisfying the feast, there was always room for ice cream because “it trickles into the interstices between the intersections of your intestines.” Her mother used to say that, and now I guess it’s my turn.

Meanwhile, at LAX, I had a pocket of time, a seat in an uncrowded corner near the boarding gate, and a WhatsApp connection. I called on the Kat’s phone. “Hello!” the Kat said. “She’s awake. Hang on, and I’ll hold the phone up to her ear.”

There was a pause, then I heard a strange hissing noise, like a tap running, or loud interference. I thought the call had dropped, and was about to dial again when I heard the Kat’s voice at a distance. “Hey, Mom, it’s Belladonna on the phone. She’s in LA, and she wants to talk to you. You ready?” I understood then that the sound I could hear was the hissing of her oxygen mask.

“Hey Ma?” I said. I paused, waiting for a response, but heard nothing but the pulsating mechanical hiss. I remembered that they’d told me she couldn’t speak. It was still my turn. “Hey there!” I said. “I’m so glad you’re awake! I’m on my way, I’ll be there soon, but I wanted to say hi, and to tell you I love you. In case you’ve forgotten.” She made a sound – something between a gasp and a groan. My chatter slammed to a stop as I strained to understand. She made the sound again. She was speaking, saying “hello”, or maybe it was “I love you”. I didn’t have to hear it; I already knew. “Hush, little Marmeee,” I said, speaking more slowly and gently now. “Don’t tire yourself. We can talk properly when I’m there. I just want you to know I’m on my way – I’ll be boarding soon – and I want to tell you why it’s taken me so long to come. I really couldn’t help the delay.”

It was important to explain because I’d promised, back in February when she was sad that it was time for me to leave, that I’d return when she needed me. And although she hadn’t asked me to come, she’d asked the Girl Child why I wasn’t there. She knew that I knew she wanted me, and while she would not have doubted my love the delay must have puzzled her. But I hadn’t wanted to tell her about the closed door at Passport Control, because I didn’t want her to worry that it might not open in time.

There was no longer any reason to worry, so I launched into a chaotic account of Belladonna’s Battle with Bureaucracy – starting with me being declared “undesirable” when I left South Africa in February because I’d stayed 22 hours past the 90 day limit on my American passport, through to the breakthrough that very morning when my heart daughter Ngalitjeng realized she knew someone who knew an influential someone who worked for the director general of Home Affairs. Sitting in the LAX departure lounge I told it as a funny story, and she smiled and smiled, her eyes sparkling above the oxygen mask. (I know this because the Kat told me so later. She and the Egg had wanted to hear what I was saying too, so they could share her amusement, but when the Kat tried to take the phone to activate the speaker Marmeee shrugged her off, clutched the phone greedily to her ear, and wouldn’t let go.)

My tale rambled as I worked at amusing her while ignoring the relentless hiss of her oxygen. At intervals incomprehensible announcements erupted from the public address system; there was no getting away from them, so I would just stop talking and let her listen to the airport noises and know that I was indeed on my way. Then the boarding calls for my flight began, and segment by segment my plane began to fill up. It was becoming difficult to keep track of the conversation, but I wasn’t ready to stop.

I told her again that I loved her, and that I would be there in time for breakfast on Sunday. I sang her the little prayer she used to sing to me each night when she put me to bed. I told her that really she didn’t need to go to such extreme lengths to get me to visit. And then I said, “But just in case you’re not faking, just in case time really is short, I want you to know you don’t have to wait for me. I’d love to see you again, but if you need to go, it’s okay. I know where you’re going, and I’ll find you there one day.” For a moment I listened to her air hiss. I let her hear my boarding call, for rows 60 to 54. I said goodbye.

She released the phone to the Kat. She was still smiling. I know this, and all that followed, because people I love have painted that day for me in words and silences, in smiles and tears, so that it is etched in my memory as clearly as if I had been there.

Seated beside her bed, my sisters chatted softly, laughing at shared memories, as the dark inched toward morning. They held ice cubes for her to suck on, and at timed intervals they allowed a carefully measured teaspoonful of water to trickle down her throat. They rubbed cream into her hands. At one point she batted irritably at her mask and the Kat said, “Is it bothering you? Does your face need a rest?” She nodded, and the Kat lifted the oxygen mask and said, “Come on – exercise your face!” She grinned broadly, then pursed and pouted her lips, wrinkled her nose, blinked her bright eyes. Later that morning the Kat pulled the mask away again and had her perform her new face dance tricks for the rest of the family.

Every four hours nurses came to massage her and turn her so that she wouldn’t develop bed sores. They changed her diaper, put ointment in her dry mouth, checked her blood pressure. She smiled with relief and gratitude.

Twiglet, the sister of my heart, arrived. “Hey, special lady,” she greeted her, “What’s this nonsense now?” She kissed her, and Marmeee beamed at her with love.

The doctor came to check on her before the procedure to suction her lungs. His shoulders sagged and his face was sad as he told them she was too weak – they couldn’t do it after all. Gently he touched her swollen hands, and told them it was time to take out the drip. Her body could no longer process fluid – it was just making her uncomfortable.

Twiglet sent the Kat and the Egg home to rest. She picked up Marmeee’s Bible and read to her. She prayed for her, and sang Amazing Grace, and was quiet while she slept.

Loving hands (2)The Girl Child arrived with the Olde Buzzard later that morning. He took her hands, kissed her, said, “You’re so beautiful, my darling. I love you so much.” Then he sat as close to her as he could, refusing the comfortable chair because he couldn’t hold her hand unless he was in the hard upright chair.

Other family members came, and she captured each in turn with her bright, clear gaze, sending love like an arrow straight from her eyes to their hearts. Embraced by a room filled by her own most dear people, she basked in their conversation, laughter, teasing. She didn’t need to speak. She had forgiven all hurts, shared all she knew, told each one she loved them. She had left no business undone.

As the day drew to a close people began to leave. They kissed her goodbye, told her they loved her, promised to return. The Olde Buzzard was shuddering with cold and exhaustion after a too-long day. Gently the Girl Child coaxed him from his seat. “Come on, Granddad – Granny needs to rest. We’ll come back tomorrow.” The Kat took him home to her little Kat-House, and got him fed, washed and settled into bed. The only company left with Marmeee were my sister-in-law Sol and her children. They chatted quietly while Marmeee dozed, and sang Christmas carols to her when she woke, “Because,” said Sol, “she likes songs about Jesus, but I don’t really know any hymns.”

After a few hours, Sol had to leave. The Egg and the Kat were on their way back to take the late night watch, and she was alone for just a little while. When my sisters were just a short distance away, a nurse called to tell them to hurry. They said her blood pressure was falling fast. The Egg telephoned Twiglet, who said, “I think it’s time to call the family. Tell them to come quickly.” The Egg sent out a series of urgent messages on WhatsApp, while the Kat slapped her foot down onto her accelerator. They flew red lights and whipped around corners and slammed into a parking space, and they ran up to the ward.

There was really no time for anyone else to come. As they watched, she fell more and more deeply asleep. Her breathing, labored when they arrived, slowed to a whisper, to silence. The pulse in her neck flickered, stopped.

It had been a beautiful day, a beautiful life, but she was tired. She had said her goodbyes. It was time to go home.

Marmeee at Sol Duc Falls, Olympic Peninsula

When your best is not enough

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Jane

Jane

Himself and I spent most of yesterday driving around 300 miles to help a scrap of a dog get home. We were just one small part of a big effort. To get Jane from Denver, Colorado to Spokane, Washington involved 14 drivers working in relay, after hours of intensive work by the coordinator who put the project together.

It feels pretty special to be part of something like that. Yes, you can argue, “Why put so much effort into one puppy when there are so many in desperate need?” And yes, maybe, differently managed, that same amount of human love, time and energy, not to mention the cost of the gas alone, could have been directed into saving a whole lot of dogs – or whales – or children.

I heard the same argument back when I ran a mission school in South Africa. I often asked people I met to make a small donation, or maybe sponsor just one child. The cost of sponsorship was equivalent to maybe one fast food meal for four, once a month. Several times wealthy people, who routinely spent more on a single dinner out than the families I served spent on a month of eating, replied, “But what’s the point? There are so many kids like that – I can’t change anything.”

The argument is valid, but it misses the point completely. We can’t change the whole world, but anyone can touch a life. As long as you stay safely outside the war zone of life, you can think in abstract terms and pray for world peace and argue on Facebook about which political party “cares” more. But, with heartfelt apologies to the Democrats and Republicans out there, no government program will magic away poverty, and nor will setting the market free enable everyone to pursue life, liberty or happiness. There is no global solution to the problem of human failure and imperfection.

If you want the world to be better, you have to make that happen yourself, one act of kindness at a time. And I honestly believe it doesn’t matter whether you direct your kindness toward a kid or a puppy or [Insert Cause Here]. Any act – large or small – that adds to the sum total of happiness, peace and beauty in the world is worthwhile. One of the best things to happen to me this year was when I was having a rough day, dealing with physical pain and a whole lot of sadness, and the guy ahead of me in the Dutch Brothers drive-through paid for my coffee. He didn’t save the world or change my life, but he transformed that one day for me, and while he has certainly forgotten the few dollars it cost him, I still remember how good that coffee tasted, and how it warmed my heart.

Sometimes a few dollars, or a bit of time, is all it takes. Sometimes it’s more about a change of attitude. Sometimes you get to take on something big.

Sometimes it costs a whole lot more than you bargained for. I have been trying for months to write about what it was like to create a dog rescue organization, and pour everything I had into running it, and finally – just as I broke beyond repair under the strain – to hand it off to people I trusted, and then to find that my trust had been misplaced. But writing about that kept leading to what it felt like to start a school out of nothing but a gang of children, and pour everything I had into running it, and finally to break when people I trusted turned against me. I wanted to write about what it’s like for your best never to be enough, about the pain of broken trust and shattered dreams, and also about the soul-scorch of burnout.

Here’s the thing about burnout: you hold it at bay for as long as you can, because the need – whatever it is – is unrelenting. You feel the heat, you know you won’t hold out forever, but you keep going in an effort to save what you can while you can. When you finally quit, you think that at last you’re free. That’s when you find out that all that’s been holding you together is the purpose that has also been devouring you from the inside out. Rid yourself of the purpose, and whatever is left collapses upon itself.

So I wanted to write about that, but I couldn’t figure out how to do so without sounding like I was whining or – worse – looking for a pat on the head. And while that might have been the case a year or even six months ago, whines and pats are irrelevant now that I’m through the pain.

I’ve just realized that what I want to write about is the fact that sometimes the cost of kindness is so high it seems to bankrupt you – but it’s still worth it.

Don’t get me wrong: it sucks when you take on something too big, and it eats you alive and hacks you up and leaves the remnants lying in the dirt. Burnout sucks, and being disappointed or betrayed or blamed sucks, and feeling guilty and ashamed because you know your personal flaws contributed to the crash-and-burn sucks most of all.

But it doesn’t suck enough not to risk it. I believe the key to riches is to give fearlessly whenever you see a need and have the capacity to respond, no matter how little you’re able to give. A small act of kindness may be to humanity like the perfectly timed flap of a butterfly’s wing – and even if it isn’t, it will still give wings to that one moment. And if you are blessed to have the freedom and opportunity to pour yourself out, do so with a lavish hand – because that may indeed change a small corner of the world, and it will certainly transform you.

The truth – my post-burnout truth – is that there are a whole lot of alive-minded young people out there whose kids call me granny. One of them, a girl who grew up in unimaginable poverty, is a qualified and highly paid engineer who now helps support my parents. Another is a musician, some are teachers, a few are entrepreneurs. One is a single mom who occasionally needs help with her kids’ school expenses. Also, hundreds of dogs and people are happy because we brought them together, and the rescue Himself and I started is still the best in our town and doing just fine without us.

Sometimes your best just is not enough, and then failure or burnout may strike with all the devastating effect of a forest fire. But time passes, you begin to heal, and the desire to re-engage rises like sap in a young tree. And then you take a deep breath, and you do the next best thing. Maybe you can’t plunge in too deep, because you’ve grown wary and the burns still hurt. But you can buy one child a study aid, you can help out one cash-strapped shopper at the till, you can give one puppy a ride home.

The discipline of trust

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Two weeks ago I visited my friend for the last time.

Yesterday at the church her son gave me the woven shawl she would use when she rested on the couch in her living room. I used to love how soft it felt when I sat at the end of the couch with the shawl over my lap while I massaged her poor, swollen feet, back when her liver began to fail. Now she doesn’t need it any more, and I can wrap it around myself like a hug any time I want to.

I asked for something to remember her by. When he gave me this, my heart broke. Then I came home and wrapped it around me, and was comforted.

I asked for something to remember her by. When he gave me this, my heart broke. Then I came home and wrapped it around me, and was comforted.

We didn’t get to talk the last time I visited her. She was uncomfortable but she couldn’t speak above a whisper, just a few slurred words at a time, so I didn’t know what to do for her. I retreated to the big easy chair she kept in her bedroom and let the Hospice aide tend to her. The aide was kind and competent, but my friend wanted pain medication and the aide wouldn’t (couldn’t?) give it to her.

“You have to wait until 4.30,” she said, again and again, in response to my friend’s broken, insistent whispers. (It was then two o’clock.) The aide went away and called Hospice then came back and said it again. While she was out of the room I sat beside my friend, stroking her hand, bereft of words – because what are words for if not to advise, encourage or inform? I could do nothing but sit beside her and stare at the drawer of her bedside table, inside which she had 15 or 20 bottles of pills. She knew which ones she wanted but I did not, and even if I’d had the courage to give them to her I could not understand her.

In movies, drugs for dying patients are kept on the far side of the room, out of their reach. I have always thought that was wickedly cruel. If I were dying and in pain, I have thought, I would want to have my medications right next to me, and if I wished to take an extra one or two – and so speed the process – that should be my right.

My friend’s pills were right within her reach, but she was too weak to get them out of the drawer, too tired and confused to read the labels, and much too feeble to open the cap on the pill bottle. I did not know it was possible to be that weak.

I do not know how it is possible to be that strong. I understand now that even then, when her need was great, if she had been able to take an extra pill and so end her struggle she would not have done so. Years ago, long before I met her, she entrusted her life into God’s hands, and she left it there. Something I have learned about God is, when you hand Him your life, He doesn’t lift it out of reach. You can take it back any time you choose – and choosing not to can be an act of extraordinary discipline. My friend was the most disciplined person I have ever known.

At last she wearied of arguing with the aide. I could see she needed to sleep, and I had errands to run and nothing to offer her anyway. “I have to go,” I told her, “but I’ll pray for you first.” It was just a little prayer – there was nothing to ask for but rest, freedom from pain, and for her to go home, home, home – “Please,” I whispered, “Let her come home!”  And she sighed relief as the lines of tension in her face eased, and it seemed to me that she relaxed into her Father’s arms.

But it was a whole hard week before He finally took her home, and during that time she didn’t want visitors. It was painful to be shut out, reminded daily that I could do nothing for her. But thinking back now I’m grateful that memory is the last one I have of her. I’m thankful that in that little prayer I did after all have something, however fleeting, to give her.

We said goodbye to her yesterday, in a service she planned to the last detail just before Thanksgiving. The first hymn said pretty much everything important about who she was and how she lived, right up to her last breath.

More people came to the service than I expected. She was the kind of person one always pictured standing alone – not aloof or lonely, but serenely self-contained. I knew, of course, that she was active in volunteer work, and that she deeply loved her family and spent as much time as she could with them. But until a few weeks before she died, when I was with her it was always just the two of us, and during those times she was so completely present that it never occurred to me that anyone that calm could possess the time or energy to have so many other friendships that ran as deep. But my friend never wasted her energy or her time, and so she had precisely as much as she needed for what mattered to her.

It was beautiful but humbling, yesterday, to realize that she had also been completely present within the lives of many other people. As they spoke about her I learned things – ordinary facts about her and her history and thoughts she had shared in conversations with others – and I was amazed by the complex, rich beauty of her life and personality. I had thought I knew her well; I know she didn’t hold back in the conversations we shared – and yet there was so much more to know than I had ever imagined. In a way, she was like her shawl. I always thought it was purple, and it was only after I brought it home that I noticed all the other colors in the weave.

And now it is the day after her memorial, and she really and truly is gone from my life, and it is time to move on. Except…

Except I find myself still wanting to honor her. Knowing her and losing her has changed me, and I find myself wanting to live that change, to give it breath. A month ago, watching her quietly yield up the elements of her life, I thought she was showing me how to die, but I see now that she has taught me far more important things about how to live.

The art of dying

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Over the past few months I have watched my friend craft her death like a work of art. It is nearly complete.

She started with abundance. She spent frequent weekends watching her beloved grandsons compete in athletics events. (She was a runner for years – she told me she started running to beat breast cancer the first time it sneaked up on her.) She cared for her mother, at first in her home; later, after her mother moved into a facility, through daily visits and outings. She volunteered all over town – at the Cancer Center, the library, our church, a low-cost clinic. She traveled and went on a cycling tour.

She had a fat orange kitty named Peaches. In summer, her garden was full of roses. Her home was always immaculate, and friends were always welcome. Every day she ran or cycled, except on the worst days of chemotherapy. On those days, she walked. Every single day, summer and winter, busy day or not, her alarm woke her at 6.00AM, and every single morning she spent an hour or more in prayer and quiet, thoughtful study of her Bible.

Her mother died last year, and some months after that the doctors told my friend they had worked through every treatment option available and had nothing left to offer her. Then Peaches died early this year. My friend kept right on volunteering, running or cycling daily, waking at 6.00AM, welcoming friends, tending her roses, seeking to know God better.

And day by day, stroke by stroke, using her disease as a chisel, God carved away her life.

(Pic from Dollar Photo Club)

The master craftsman at work. (Source)

Or so it seemed to me. Only, when I started really paying attention, I understood that something different was happening. I watched how she stood before her God and He said, “Will you give me that?” and she said “Yes”  – so that running gave way way to walking, striding for miles gave way to a careful stroll down the block leaning on a walker.

He asked and she yielded – the library, the clinic, the Cancer Center, church activities, traveling to be with family, working in her garden. She stopped driving and depended on friends to take her shopping, and then to do her shopping for her.

Having been always quietly, insistently independent, she let her neighbors mow her lawn, take her garbage to the curb, collect her mail. Hospice sent someone a few times a week to help her bathe. Then they started sending someone to help her get ready for bed in the evenings and do a bit of cleaning, although she fixed her own dinner. A few weeks ago she started having a caregiver with her all night, but she still got up at 6.00AM every day so she could be dressed and see them through the door in plenty of time to sit down with her Bible after breakfast, just as she had always done.

“Are you afraid?” I asked her once. It was not a foolish question. I watched her closely and never saw her flinch, so I thought maybe I was just too stupid to understand. She thought about it, then said, “I’m afraid it might hurt. And I worry about losing my dignity.” That evening while I was helping her get ready for bed (it was a Sunday, when she sought the help of friends rather than the folk Hospice sent), as she leaned forward she farted. It was loud and unexpected and we were both startled, and it was entirely impossible to pretend it hadn’t happened. “Well, there goes your dignity,” I said at last, and we both fell about laughing.

Her liver failed. Her features have always been sharply chiseled with strong, prominent bones. She yielded her profile and it sank into puffiness. She yielded her clear, direct gaze as her eyelids swelled and she became too weak to open her eyes wider than slits.

Last Saturday Hospice sent her a hospital bed. We watched a movie – “The Gods Must Be Crazy” – while we waited for it to be delivered. I massaged her feet and told her how that movie had inspired me to abandon my own career as a journalist and start a mission school in a rural village in Africa. She ate a shortbread cookie.

On Sunday she was tired and weak. She wouldn’t eat, and spent much of my visit in her new bed, sleeping while I read my book in the chair she had bought for visitors. Her son called, but she couldn’t speak without slurring so he asked her to give the phone to me. He told me he planned to drive over on Thursday. I hesitated, then said, “Not until then?” I heard his breath catch. “Oh,” he said. “I’ll be there on Tuesday.”

On Monday she was alert again, happy at the prospect of seeing her family. She knew the lift in her spirits would be short-lived, so she told Hospice she was ready to go onto 24-hour care. We sat in the living room and watched another movie – “As Good As It Gets” – and made plans to take a drive, get her out of the house, just as soon as the weather improved a little.

On Tuesday she couldn’t walk further than the distance between her bed and her toilet. She drank from a little sponge on a stick that she dipped into a cup of water. I learned that she hadn’t been able to sit up to read her Bible for a few days, so I sat beside her bed and we flipped through Psalms, and I read everything she had highlighted – her trove of prayers and promises. Sometimes I thought she was asleep, but whenever I stopped reading she opened her eyes, so I would carry on.

Yesterday morning I looked at her lying on her bed, as insubstantial as a quick sketch in soft pencil. She has peeled away and yielded all the rich clutter of her life on earth, and what’s left is the pure essence of a woman whose trust in her Maker’s love has not wavered.

Picasso nude

I finished reading the Psalms and, at her request, started 2 Corinthians. I have promised to continue today, but she did not promise to wait for me to come.