Caregiving for a loved one, whether they are dying or not, can rate with crossing the Gobi on the scale of difficult things one may have to do. Many deaths offer gifts, to the dying person and their family. Some deaths are fraught with difficulty and resistance. I pray to experience only the former.
Working for hospice, it is our mission to help these people as much as we can. To treat them all with compassion and respect, and let them lead the way.
Every Tuesday at my work we have a meeting to check in about our current patients and their families. This is from a handout we received in the meeting from a Chaplain.
Imagine helping a friend on a journey to a remote monastery perched on top of a mountain. As you begin your trip, the path is fairly clearly marked and the goal easily seen in the distance. But as you approach, the monastery is often obscured by the tops of trees in the forests through which you pass. And you say ” if only we could get out of this woods, we would be able to see the monastery again and see where we’re going.” And as you continue the climb, the path fades and much is accomplished by guesswork. You call on your friend for help. After all, this is her trip and she should know what she’s doing. But she becomes older and weaker and relies more on you moment by moment.
Things get worse. You lose the path and you are tired and hungry. But, she can not proceed alone and you can’t leave her on the mountain while you return to the warmth and safety of home. So, you find a new reserve of strength, enough for both of you, and you continue up the mountain, for now it is your journey, as well. You look at yourself anew and find that you have gown older, become more mature like your friend, and you accept this as part of the mutual trip. And in accepting your role as guide you find that you are guided, that your friend, whose legs have crumpled beneath her by now, offers you wellsprings of courage and hope. You drink deeply, for you realize that if either of you are to make it to the top, it will need both of you guiding and supporting the other in ways constantly changing and unimaginable.
One day when you least expect it, the heavy cedar gates of the monastery are suddenly dead ahead. The trip had become the whole purpose, it seemed, and the monastery forgotten. But there it stands: Your friend’s objective has been reached The door opens to admit your friend and, as if you had performed the ritual many times before, you hand your friend over the threshold. The door closes, and you stand there numb, alone, bewildered.
Out of habit you continue walking. It doesn’t seem to matter in what direction, for each of the possible paths lead back down from the mountain.
The trip down seems easier than the trip up was. The mountain holds few surprises, now, and there is ample time to sit and ponder before reaching the valley below. And somehow in reviewing the trip with your friend, its moments of desperation and fear are overshadowed by the times of giving and accepting, of sharing and journeying together. Memory of the monastery fades and in its place stand crystal images of points along the upward trek. There was the time you picked her up and carried her across the rocks when her strength failed. And there was the time when you slipped and lost your grasp, but she held you up and supported you with the power of her mind. There was something special in those moments, something, which if you could string all of those images together in just the right order, that then, maybe then, you would understand.
As it is, you return to the valley a different person, quieter and stronger, knowing only that you have been a part of something …. holy. This friend shared with you her most personal possession, her death. And though you can’t quite comprehend its true value, you find yourself hoping that you will have the ability to fully experience and share your final journey with another wayfarer to whom you can pass on crystal images.
(Can I say, it’s really cool getting to work with Chaplains. And not just for the handouts…)