Last night I had a moment of surrender. I finally had to use the reading glasses I swore I'd never use. I have been avoiding this for some time now, thanks to my Kindle. I have it set to HUGE FONT so it makes reading really easy on my eyes. But I bought a real book at a real book store, and was appalled by the small type.
It’s amazing how in one moment you’re a teenager, weeping over the total lack of control you have over your life, and then the next moment, you’re leaning into 40, looking at your sleeping children, and realizing that the reading glasses you swore you’d never wear allow your eyes focus on that wonderful book for a bit longer.
When I really stop and think about it, it’s such a privilege to experience such a mind blowing range of emotions, situations, of highs and lows in this lifetime.
I visited my Aunt Susan two days ago with my mom. Susan is in hospice care, in the final stages of surrender to cancer after a very long, very brave battle. I went into it thinking I would handle it just fine… after all, when I volunteered at the hospital, I loved visiting with people who were just about to be ushered out of this life and into the next. Things are so real with these people. There’s no small talk. There is only presence. I figured, “I’ve got this.” I will admit to some smug feelings of superiority over my mom as we pulled up to the house. I’ve got this.
I didn’t have it.
It was exactly as my former mentor at O’Connor Hospital, Fr Basil, once told me: “Remember, you are not the holy one administering to the sick. They are the holy ones administering to you, teaching you something very profound about the nature of suffering, surrender and facing the ultimate fear. Remove your sandals. You are on holy ground.”
When it was a stranger I was administering to, it was so much easier to be in full possession of my spiritual tools of being a quiet, peaceful presence in the room. At the hospital, I always seemed to know what to say, how to say it, and when to not say anything at all.
But Susan is someone I know and love. Someone who is part of our family, mother to my two precious cousins. Wife to my Uncle Dennis, who has been a part of my life in a big way for 40 years. I was speechless. Dumb struck. Unable to do anything but let my mom and Uncle guide us through the visit.
Coming into contact with Susan means stepping into an empathy that required me to imagine what it must feel like to know you only have a few weeks left. That you have to say goodbye to your children. Your husband. This beautiful, broken world.
Just typing those words makes my heart swell and ache at how precious it all really is, and how I bumble through it half high on caffeine, totally disconnected from its unfolding gifts. So absorbed with finding the right radio station I miss the scattering of pink clouds stretched out across a sky that goes on forever.
Such a visit should make me silent, listening… waiting and welcoming life in any form it takes – the sound of those squirrels twittering outside to each other… the moments when my children put on their Halloween costumes, giggling and wild.
Such a visit should bring me to a place of such gratitude for the life I’m still living. Visiting Susan should bring me to my knees in sorrow for the life she’s leaving behind.
But I was in possession of none of that, just a vague knowing that I had little to offer except my being physically there and that I came bearing raviolis from La Villa Deli and a very decent bottle of Pinot.
My mom on the other hand… She was gentle, quiet, allowed Susan to dictate the rules of engagement. She told Susan stories only when Susan expressed an interest in hearing them. And when Susan was tired, my mom picked up on that too, and shuffled us out of the room.
As I get older, there are so many sneak attack feelings of superiority over my parents. I don’t intend to have them, but they just show up with their air of sophistication and I fall for them every time. Age brings with it experience, and sometimes I mistake 40 years of acquired experiences for wisdom. My mom’s grace was a revelation to me. Susan’s total peaceful surrender to her situation, and presence of mind and ability to connect with me one-on-one to say goodbye… to tell me how proud she is of who I’ve become… My Uncle’s ability to keep his sense of humor through the small, grim, real acts of tending to the mother of his children who is dying… these are behaviors I can’t even begin to approach in my current state. These behaviors remind me of how far I have to go to get beyond an embryonic state of humanness.
I am only capable of witnessing it all play out in front of me. I am only capable of hoping that when the time comes, I’ll be in possession of such grace. Today, I’m only capable of getting my kids dressed for Halloween without making it a problem.
Today I’m only capable of being fully awake to the fun of walking around the neighborhood behind these little people, clutching my glass of wine, chirping at my best friend Naomi who always comes with her family on this night every year, knowing that my husband is watching all of us with his wonderful diligence and carefulness.
Wherever you are, dear reader, may you and I do these small things with great love and great attention. May we be brought to our knees in appreciation for this incredible gift of October 31st, 2013.