The Conscious Transitions End of Life Retreat vision is still floating in the ether- coming to fruition on Divinity Time or not-either way is okay. During this lapse, I received a call to help a dying man.
I did not sleep but an hour or two, in broken bursts, the night before I was to start my new job. Tooth-related pain, jaw, neck, head along with the chronic issues – kept the body-organism called Michael wide awake. I was suppose to begin with my client the following morning at 10 am. By 8 am, complete zombie mode was in full effect. Every iota of the mind/body energetics were demanding cancellation.
“Lie down. Go to sleep. Call them later and apologize.” All impotent mantras. I could do no such thing; providence would not allow it. The nausea was at a high level and the 2nd brain, the one in the stomach, joined the powerless-moaning chatter. “I can’t make it.”
I got in the car, on a empty stomach, a hot cup of digestive tea blend mixed with dragon well green and made the 30-minute drive to the westside of Santa Cruz. The incredibly tall and spindly palm tree marked the destination.
The bark of 18-month old Mac, a beautiful red standard poodle, announced my arrival. I pushed the front door open and there just to the left, was Terry, aged 84. Sound asleep on a hospital bed, his mouth wide open, face cocked upward. It was the pre-morgue snapshot, which causes most people to recoil, when it’s time to visit their dying granny. The faintest sound, a raspy breath, was heard; that of a man slowly dying from congestive heart failure. Once a robust 190 pounder with potent math skills, his wife Peggy soon informs me, Terry has withered down to 112 at last weigh in.
Hospice has been called, arriving last week, thus signaling the often dreaded – 6 months or less to live – marker. In Terry’s case it may be only one week, the hospice nurse told Peggy. As I have learned, each ‘death’ journey is a unique and amazing final dance that is not decided by man (nor is any other element of life).
I entered the caregiving team via a call from a friend. I’ve never once looked for an end of life client (except when I initially joined hospice, for 2 years, in 2001). The clients just come to me. I am here by some magic to watch a man die. Terry is dying well, so far; and kindness oozes from him as he lets go into the great unknown.
During one of Terry’s rare moment of lucid consciousness, his wife Peggy introduces us. I hold out a protein shake minutes later (the solid food days are over). Lightly pressing the plastic container against his upper chest to allow ease, gravity and straw access, I place the plastic suction device in his mouth. Terry looks at me with wide, bright eyes full of love; even as the life force dwindles he sees this new arrival as a welcome guest.
Unable to get up from bed- a permanent catheter has been installed. There’s no better word here; the body an engine with a large radiator leak gushing yellowish water all over. A labor intensive, huge mess for his already overworked mechanic wife, Peggy. Terry’s not a fan of the metallic needle up his urethra, no man in his right mind would be. Peggy, though, is ecstatic with the tech contraption, repeating more than once:
“A life saver!” Peggy, herself over 80 and the alpha-queen, is use to handling everything herself. We all have our limits, though, that’s why hospice is here and two new caregivers – my friend Sandra (saint in training) and myself included – have come to allow Peggy to do: errands, simple projects, nap, go to church or see a friend for lunch. She can rest at ease knowing her husband of 53 years is truly cared for.
In 16 years of end of life caregiving, Terry is one of the easiest.
There’s only one picture of my paternal grandfather Ray in our entire extended family archive. In that picture my grandfather looks much like Terry does now. My grandfather also died of congestive heart failure, doing so when my father was only 6 years old. This was about 1945 near the end of World War 2.
In truth, most people that cross our path in life, we will meet only once. Some will get a glance, look, or eye contact, a simple ‘hello’ or ‘excuse me’ – others a middle finger or a ‘fuck you jerk’; perhaps if we realize that this encounter will be the only time in our whole life that we might see this person, there would be more: ‘god bless’, ‘you are the best’ or ‘have a great day’.
When death approaches, this Western culture has been conditioned to run, deflect, escape, fight or defend. The best is acceptance. For the passing of the form is natural and ordinary, just like everything else in life. We need not push death away, get weird about the physical appearance or manifestation of symptoms, the inevitable decline. Nor does one need to fall into gloom and doom. As an end of life caregiver and one with a fair share of experience with chronic illness, I have done deep inquiry into ‘death”. I say:
“Take your best shot death and let’s see if you really are the bogie man everyone fears.” Death cannot touch our essential Self, dying is only part of a play, a happening, within God.
Terry took a few more sips and looked at me with the innocent and receptive eyes of an infant:
“Thank you so much.” Each word is enunciated with a slight pause allowing the bliss of gratitude to fully enter my heart. His words carry a genuine transmission. Each syllable, every single vowel, resonates – like a tibetan singing bowl.
“Is that enough?” I query softly.
“A little more. He sips some fresh pressed Tangerine juice this time.
“So good!” He looks at me like a puppy dog this time. “Do you want some?” This is the my lathery tongue to the face.
Mac, the flying red poodle, goes airborne and lands, nestling against Terry’s legs (he know not to go above waist level to avoid catheter disruption or pain). Terry smiles, then a few short gentle coughs are emitted. Within seconds Terry’s eyes close. He’s out cold; so is Mac. A Beethoven piano sonata continues. It’s been a beautiful backdrop for the simple yet profound unfolding of the last few minutes. Pandora switches to Mozart, soon Bach will play, as we head back to the place before clocks: the timeless dimension.
All of these distinctly different elements held together and sustained by that formless web of Pure Consciousness (God) – whichs eternally emits the essential oil of love. And in THAT, I’ve lost myself, in the SELF, in God, that brilliant presence dancing all creation. I’ve lost the nausea, the pain, my entire sense of self, too. Disappeared. Gone – until I think again.
Soledad, a 25-year hospice veteran Certified Nurse Assistant, has come for the first time. She’s a real business professional and true to her hispanic roots, brings an incredible work ethic and grace. She does the dirty work no one else wants to do: (like fieldworkers, landscape maintenance, dishwashers, maids and garbage men). Hispanics are the true native peoples of California. I am in awe of this culture of people that has been threatened, displaced, condemned and ridiculed since the outset of caucasian ‘civilization‘ — I use the word loosely. The White race, the caucasian peoples, have treated hispanic and latinos so poorly. Yet, these people retain their dignity despite all manner of hardship.
I say with utmost respect, the Hispanic and Latino people are the backbone and pulse beat of California. It’s as if all their children were given a mantra while in the womb: “Serve, work hard, give everything, expect nothing”. And no matter the job title (in hospice it is no different) they do the dirty work, in this case: Diaper change and sponge bath for Terry.
I ask if Soledad needs any help. She declines. Proud, prompt and straight to work she goes, effortlessly maneuvering Terry about- the true nurse that she is. Soledad calls me at the end of her cleaning routine.
“Can you take one side of the towel…” It is draped under Terry so we can pull-slide him up a couple of feet towards the head side of the bed.
As she leaves, Soledad gushes towards Peggy:
“The lilies; how beautiful!”
“Why don’t you take some. Whatever you need. You know lilies, they always come back!” Peggy replies.
The next day a hospice nurse arrives. With several visits to the house already, Reanda is family. She displays a palpable love for Terry, tenderly leaning over and touching his arm, folding over his bed for a hug. Mac, held close on leash, is let free. He greets her with a slathering smooch.
After Reanda leaves a growing stillness descends. Terry’s eyes open when I touch his arm lightly to check on him.
“Are you a doctor?” He asks curiously- as if speaking from an ethereal realm, eyes varnished with a celestial dew that cannot understand the concepts: present, past and future.
“Not really but I am an acupuncturist; kind of like a doctor of the East.” I lean close to him so we both can hear. Terry smiles and before drifting into an angelic staging area, Peggy asks him if he would like some Jazz. He nods in the affirmative.
A few seconds later Pandora begins playing the Preservation Jazz Band tune: COME TO ME – and at that moment I notice a framed, matted print of a magnificent Sycamore tree above Terry’s head. Under the tree at the bottom of the print it reads: The Holy Tree of Existence. And like the Holy Family of Jesus, this tree now shelters Terry, offering comfort for the coming Great Transition.