Lenten Reflections from a Hospice Chaplain #3
I begin this reflection with an excerpt from Traveling Mercies, written by an unruly author in the world of spirituality, Anne Lamott…
Rick is the editor in chief of Yoga Journal. He moved in with his girlfriend at the far end of our street a few years ago, and then about ten minutes later he was diagnosed with lung cancer. It had metastasized to his brain. He had done surgery, chemo, radiation, and every imaginable alternative medicine but is still living with both his beautiful girlfriend and stage-four metastatic lung cancer. He usually drives by our house a couple of times a day and seems to be in a quietly good mood most of the time.
I just do not understand this conceptually.
Several weeks before this latest flu, when I had a simple head cold, I pounded on his windshield when he attempted to drive by and said, “Why are you doing this to me? Look at me—I’m congested.” He smiled. He loves me, loves my emotional drag-queeny self. He’s ten years older than I, and he looks a little like Stephen Spielberg, especially because he wears a baseball cap most of the time now and does not shave every day.
I read an interview he did for a Buddhist quarterly recently, in which he said he’s so savoring the moments of his life right now, so acutely aware of love and small pleasures that he no longer feels he has a life-threatening disease: he now says he’s leading a disease-threatening life.
I ask myself--Is this possible? Is this real? Is this…really possible? Or is this merely a semantic summersault…playing with language so as to trick my mind and my heart and my soul into believing something desirable, yet unattainable? Having been at HOM for only a few days compared to many of you, I must defer to the experiences you’ve shared with the patients and families you have walked with. Have you ever experienced this? Ever witnessed life invading death even though death slowly keeps winning the battle? Perhaps you don’t work in the world of patients—have you had loved ones, friends, family members who have lived boldly in the face of terminal illness, hardship or suffering?
I sense, intuitively, that it is real. Mystical? Certainly. But no less real than the lights, angels and family members that many of our patients have reported seeing just prior to their death.
Further down the page, Lamott pens these incisive words from her friend with cancer—“I’m going to live until I die. And the doctor is going to live until he dies. He thinks he knows when I’m going to die, but he doesn’t even know when he’s going to die.” The somewhat grim reality is that we all have a terminal illness. On this Lenten Journey we have been engaging and interacting with our own mortality…our journey of life and death. When push comes to shove, I am invited to follow the lead of Lamott’s Buddhist friend. Will I continue to live a life that is being threatened by my terminality? Or will I gird up the energy and passion within my heart, soul and mind and LEAP (even if out of control) headlong into a disease-threatening life?
In a memorable Seinfeld clip, George asks Jerry if he “yearns.” “I don’t think so,” says Jerry. “I’ve desired, longed for, hoped for, but I haven’t yearned.” Well, I yearn for the latter to be true for me. For us. For our patients. For their families. For you, the BOA, Medical Director, IS guru, RN, etc. I yearn to leap into the current of vibrant life. Maybe you’ve stood on the banks of the river and viewed it’s beauty up close, but slightly removed—watching but not partaking. Perhaps you’ve dipped your hands in the stream and tasted the icy freshness that startles you awake. But you’ve been wary of the chaos found within the banks. You are uncertain (ie, worried about control) because you can’t see beyond the horizon where the water flows. Life is full of chaos and we all know there is no controlling it. But in the midst of it all there is a cool, refreshing, life-giving energy and joy and connection and identity and purpose and—well, the river just keeps running.
I hope (yea, even yearn) for you to feel full of life. For me, the march towards Easter reminds me that death doesn’t win and I am indeed living a disease-threatening life. Perhaps you draw your inspiration from another source. Whatever it is, may it lead you, draw you, compel you towards the water. And may you, with whatever courage and determination and foolhardiness that you can muster, LEAP IN!
Grateful to be here walking with you,