As a hospice chaplain. I often feel as if I stand at the ineffable edge of a great mystery. But I stand not on a windy mountain summit but at the bedside of the dying. As a chaplain, the challenge has been for me to give voice to this Mystery, to stand hand-in-hand with grieving family and friends and to speak words that will invite depth and meaning. For some, those words will be the comforting words of their own religious tradition, most often Christianity.
But increasingly, for people aligned with no particular religious tradition or who are uncomfortable with the formulaic trappings of formal religion, I have had to find other words. It was the simple act of holding hands around the bedside of the dying that gave birth to a different language, a new way of speaking. And what emerged was the language of love. At these times, I often say these or similar words, which today form in my heart as a prayer for Nat:
“We gather together at a sacred time. We stand in awe at the edge of a great Mystery. And even as we stand together in a circle of love around our loved one, may he be received in love. May he be welcomed and embraced by love. May he be made whole. May he be at peace. And may our lives be renewed by the love that he has shown us and that we carry in our hearts out into the world.”
Even as we minister to the dying, we are also mindful of their legacy. Each of us will leave a legacy of how we experience our death, of how we are able to be with our own dying.
In a recent book, Joan Halifax, founder and guiding teacher of the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, speaks of this legacy of how we transition through the ultimate rite of passage.
She recalls the story of Martin Toler, who, seven years ago, along with several other miners, died in the Sago Mine accident in West Virginia. She writes:
“Slowly dying in the thickening air of the mineshaft, the oxygen wicked up with every breath, Toler used what little energy he had left to write a note of reassurance to those closest to him—and to the millions of us who later heard about it, too.
“From deep inside the earth, Toler addressed the entire world, beginning his note: ‘tell all—I see them on the other side.’ He promises his kin to meet them in eternal life, in the place that is deathless. He expresses for all of us the deep human wish that our connections will transcend the event of separation we suffer at the moment of death. ‘It wasn’t bad, I just went to sleep,’ the note continues, and scrawled at the bottom, with the last of his ebbing strength, are the tender, unselfish words ‘I love you.’”
Toler’s last words honor the noblest lessons from our human connections: that life is sacred and relationship holy. Through the darkness, he reached out, not only to his family, but to the rest of us through his abiding and compassionate words. For, as the Buddha told his cousin Ananda: The whole of the holy life is good friendship. Our relationships—and our love—are ultimately what give depth and meaning to our lives.”
Last September, Nat’s wife Lynn called me from the intensive care unit of the York Hospital. “Can you come?” she asked. “Nat is very sick.” Nat’s father Phil had died that summer. After the memorial service, I was taken aback by how poorly Nat looked. I was concerned, but chalked his appearance up to grief and the hard work of operating an inn in the summertime. Word eventually came that he had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma. He was started on chemotherapy in preparation for a stem cell transplant that it was hoped he would have later that fall in Boston. But in the meantime, he developed a secondary condition resulting in congestive heart failure. Now, the simple act of walking from his bedroom down the hall to the kitchen left him breathless.
During a visit in late March, sitting on the edge of Nat’s bed, I asked him: “What lifts your spirits? What gives you hope?” And he responded: “You do—my friends and family. I’ve got so much to live for. And then he said: “I love you, my brother.”
Yes, we may meet each other on the other side. Yet we may ask ourselves: Can we meet each other now? Knowing that death is inevitable, what is most precious to us today? Nat said these tender, unselfish words: “I love you.” Seeing the pain and grief in my eyes, he said: “Don’t worry…I’m O.K.” When words failed, Nat and I would lie next to each other on the bed, holding hands. Among his many gifts to us, above all Nat leaves us this legacy of what it means to love and be loved.
A woman stands on a mountain summit at sunset, at the edge of a great mystery, and gives her beloved’s ashes to the winds.
On the same mountain, two friends stand arm in arm in the warming sun, smiling at you and me. A raven cries as it rides the gusts along the ridges and then veers off, out into the vast open sky.
(to be continued)