Ungentle death

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
                             (Dylan Thomas)

Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

Sometimes it feels like everything is dying. As I write this, nearly the whole West Coast of America has been burning for days, swept by raging wildfires from Southern California to the northern U.S. border. The invisible Corona virus COVID19 has been sweeping across the nation, leaving dead or damaged bodies in its wake. Churches, schools, and all kinds of businesses have had their casualties, some closing permanently.

But personal and most devastating to me has been the death of my mother, caught in the quarantine of a nursing home, for months isolated from my sister and me, until her body was so ravaged by her non-COVID illness that she could no longer speak. She was blind, so we couldn’t visit by waving through her window or by Zoom. She was deaf and even with hearing aids had trouble understanding us on the phone. When family was finally able to visit the patients — outside, fully masked and 6 feet away, for no more than 30 minutes once a week — she was visibly nearing the end of her life. Her body had wasted down to 79 pounds; she was so weak she could no longer hold the phone, or a cup, or feed herself; and she could barely speak enough to be understood. But because her “vital signs” (blood pressure, heart rate, and lungs) always showed “normal” the staff insisted she was not at the end of life, so we were not allowed into her room to be close to her.  

Week by week she grew more and more frail, but her heart remained strong, and their judgment continued to be that she wasn’t ill enough to let us close to her because “she isn’t at the end of life.”  Finally one nurse, recognizing that not everyone dies in the same way with the same indicators of failure and that this really was the end of life for our mother, pushed the point with the staff and got us admitted to her room. The next day she was able to take communion from the hospice chaplain. She lasted two more days. We were able to touch her, whisper into her ear, sit by her bed and pray with her. But by that time she no longer had control of her muscles, including her tongue, and could only send a puff of air. It was painful beyond telling to see how much she wanted to speak to us, but couldn’t.

We were more fortunate than many others who haven’t been able to be with their dying loved ones at all, and I’m grateful for the precious little time we had with her. But there was so much more that I longed to share with her and it was just too late. She’d been in quarantine and away from us since COVID restrictions hit all the nursing homes in March and this was the beginning of September. After 6 months, it was too little, too late.

I hate this hateful virus. I hate the overly rigid rules of care facilities that treat family like the enemy of the dying person’s well-being. (I’m grateful for the tender, diligent care of the nurses and aides who loved and cared for Mother, and for their kindness to us, but I do hate the rules that constrain them.)

I hate how hard dying is when it’s long, slow, and painfully strips everything from you.

How hard Mother clung to her life!  That fierce will to live that gave us the blessing of 96 years with her became her torment at the end. She did not go gently, my brave, fierce, gentle, wonderful mother.

A rough but beautiful road

The Abbey Church, Monastery of Christ in the Desert

When I lived in Kansas I sometimes visited a monastery nestled deep in the Chama River Canyon Wilderness in northern New Mexico: the Monastery of Christ in the Desert. It is the home of Benedictine monks and brothers who live a simple, austere life with few amenities. There they work, worship, pray, and welcome visitors on day visits or self-directed retreats. The monastery lingers in my memory as a place of serene, stunning beauty, rich in the presence of God. It’s well worth spending time there.

But like many such places, it isn’t easy to get to. Traveling north from Santa Fe on U.S. Highway 84 you turn eventually onto a 13-mile dirt road that stretches upward to skirt the edge of the Chama River. As you drive this road, to one side of the car is a sheer rock wall, on the other a steep drop toward the river. There is no shoulder to the road, no turn-around, and no room for error. It’s carved out of rock and earth and is only really safe when the weather is dry.  In rain it turns to deep, slippery mud, and in winter it’s covered in ice and snow.  It’s slow going, difficult, and beautiful.

When I visited, you were on your own getting up to the monastery. But if you were leaving the monastery when the road was muddy or icy, the brothers would “sandwich” you down – one sturdy, solid 4-wheel drive car or small truck going ahead to lead you on the road and another following after.  On one of my visits it had snowed heavily the night before I was to leave, so I was sandwiched down to the highway, feeling a small tremor of nervousness but also somehow calmed by the sheltering presence of those brothers in their sturdy vehicles. 

It’s comforting to have an experienced, sure-footed companion-traveler ahead of you and another steady and strong behind, to come to your rescue if you slip and fall. May you always have that blessing.

The Abbey chapel at night

To see more of the monastery and/or to support its ministry, visit the website at christdesert.org

Hope for the world

TIME Magazine’s February 3, 2020, issue included a quote from Michelle Bachelet that encouraged me. I want to share some of her words with you:

“…Hatred is not baked into human nature. It can be healed.… Remember this: no matter how grave and tangled the crisis, core values will steer you to the path of solutions. We are not alone. Other people matter. Justice matters.” *

When I’m tempted to be discouraged and to lose hope, I’m recalled to my core belief: i.e., that we each are called into this life to become the best person we are capable of being so that together we can heal the world. From the time we draw breath, this is our primary work. Nobody said it would be easy. But as the author George Eliot wrote, “What do we live for if not to make the world less difficult for each other?”

*Michelle Bachelet is the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and a former President of Chile.

Hello again…

I didn’t realize how long I’ve been silent. I’ve been a little overwhelmed by the rapid pace of the news out there and the challenges (health-wise) to my family. I’ve also gone quiet (as I sometimes do) because there’s a hermit’s instinct in me that occasionally takes over.

I don’t have to say it — we all know it — but I’ll say it anyway: these are emotionally exhausting, difficult and trying times for everyone all around the world. Here at home in America we’re being hit with a “perfect storm” of triple crises, and I constantly wonder, how much can I add to the relentless efforts of the best journalists to tell us the truths we need to hear and to encourage us to endure patiently and to act faithfully? I’ve been discouraged, praying for God daily to save our nation and restore us after all this, purged and renewed, “a more perfect union.” But I’ve also lately been thrilled to sense that some sea-tide is turning in our national life; my hope is quickened, my heart lifted.

I thought I’d share with you today my prayer (which is pretty much what I ask for every day, though with different nuances as they come to me):

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be thy Name.

Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us today the nourishment we need, the Bread of Life, for body and soul.

Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who’ve transgressed against us. Forgive, and send your Spirit to help us amend our lives.

Do not lead us into times of trial, nor let us fall into temptation, but rescue us. Rescue us from the evil that lurks within and the evil that assaults from without.

Rescue our nation from the greed, corruption, cowardice, willful blindness, and power-lust that have beset us so strongly, and re-form us into the nation we aspire to be. Bring forth justice and peace in our day.

Good and gracious Lord, deliver us all from anxiety and distress. Bless with your consoling grace those who languish in pain or suffer from disease, hunger, oppression, loneliness, or despair. In your merciful love, bless the dying and comfort the bereaved.

Help us to see clearly as we look on one another, and keep our eyes open to your presence among us. May we honor you in all that we do. For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours and yours alone, now and forever.  Amen.

Keep trying…

Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

These days I’m stretching beyond anything I’ve ever done, chasing a life-long desire to write a work of literary fiction and feeling like I’m back in kindergarten — or even younger: a toddler just learning to walk. I’m fighting the writer’s chief (erroneous) defense against failure: i.e., procrastination: organizing and researching instead of writing, or writing blogs and essays (a more familiar genre for me) because I dread to write and read my feeble attempts to tell a story.  

So that’s why I’m sharing here a collection of other people’s thoughts that I hope will inspire me to keep doggedly pursuing my dream. Here goes:

Let me tell you the secret that has led to my goal. My strength lies solely
in my tenacity.  (Louis Pasteur)

The most essential factor is persistence –  the determination never to allow your energy or enthusiasm to be dampened by the discouragement that must inevitably come.  (James Whitcomb Riley)

You only fail when you stop trying.  (Wachabuy.com)

If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward. 
(Martin Luther King, Jr.)

It always seems impossible until it’s done. (Nelson Mandela)