I flew home from Florida yesterday, landing in the midst of a snow storm. Now I’m sitting on the sofa, marvelling at the amount of snow that has fallen, shocked at the downed trees and power lines and other signs of devastation, sad that so many of my neighbors are still without power. And I’m very aware that all this marvel and amazement comes after the fact, after the storm. After one has heat and light and a good strong cup of coffee.
When the storm hits, the tissue of our ordinary life is stripped away and we come face to facet with the essentials, the need for heat, light, water, the need to give and receive news, help, kindness. That last–the helping neighbors, the kindness remains, even when the first burst of cooperation wears thin. As the days and weeks without light and heat go by (effecting key members of our Parabola family, Jeff, David, and Lee) we discover that kindness is not sentimental but essential. We discover that taking a hot cup of coffee to a lineman up from Georgia, or lending a hand to the neighbors, is not just a nice thing to do–it is an expression of understanding.
After the storm hit, I stayed on in Florida, where I was visiting my 93 year old father, who is facing his own super storm of sickness, aging, and impending death. He became very, very sick while I was there, and I decided to stay with him, to be his hospice nurse, to talk with him about dying. “We’re up to our neck in crocodiles here,” he said one day. This meant things were too extreme to worry about anything optional. I thought of all my friends weathering power outages, cold, trees through their roofs. Emergencies concentrate the mind. My father and I talked a great deal about dying. Many years ago I had a very dramatic NDE (another story for another time. I told him I glimpsed the light–the great luminous loving intelligence–behind the appearances of this world. I told him that we are all held by this light, this great force of love and compassion, and that he would be carried by this love when he left his body. I told him that love doesn’t end when the body dies.
“I know God is not a white guy,” my father told the chaplain who came to visit the other day. “He is a Being. My daughter from New York (gesturing to me) died and she told me.” I told my father the chaplain was there to talk about being calm and collected. “Do you think I calmed him down?” my father asked.
A good friend emailed me in Florida (thank heavens for iPads) to remind me that being with a loved one who is dying is also a time for honesty. This struck me as extraordinarily important–and something I had not considered. As I sat with my father one afternoon, I dared to mention a time when he had really hurt me. “I forgave you a long time ago,” I told him. “But I want to give you a chance to say you are sorry.” He was. I wasn’t being sadistic to a dying old man. I had an inkling that it is best to leave this world in an attitude of humility, seeking forgiveness for all the ways we may have hurt or harmed others knowingly and unknowingly. Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed our those who go forward with an open heart, empty hands.
I came to Florida carrying a question about why it is important to embody the truth, to feel all there is to feel, to experience as deeply as we can experience, not to live our lives gliding over things like ghosts, escaping into thoughts. I have an inkling that dying well has to do with participating deeply in life. And it is the hard times, the heart aches, the big storms and black outs that turn out to be the deepest springs of wisdom and compassion.
The best we have to share with one another is not what we imagine to be our spiritual treasure (not even NDEs) but the kindness that flows from ourpoverty. Blessed are those who know that we are not in control, that God is in control. Blessed are those who are open, who keep each other company and bear simple gifts, hot coffee,drinking water, a good story.