Saturday, December 25, 2010

Presents From Those Who Have Little Left

On this Christmas day, my heart goes to those who have been deprived of what most of us take for granted. Abilities as basic as thinking clearly, or walking, or holding one's head up, or breathing without pain . . . For that gift of recognition, I am indebted to all the beautiful souls I met this week at a memory care community, and also at  Zen Hospice Project:

Betsy, in the late stages of MS requires three people to feed her, two to hold her head, and the third one to place food in her mouth. She used to be an artist and make sculptures. Now her hands lay limp by her side. Betsy's body is betraying her, and yet her spirit is still very much intact. She smiles and grunts a resolute yes when I ask if she would like some more pureed squash soup.

Mimi is Japanese and 'total care' . . . She does not understand a word of English. It takes two aides to clean her, dress her and transfer her to her wheelchair.  I am told she can be quite combative some times. That morning she obliges. Later, I see her sitting alone in one corner of the dining room, she smiles and tries to engage whoever comes close. I wonder, what must she feels? When offered some crackers, she first pushes them on the side, then ends up eating her entire snack. 

Kate thought she could beat her leukemia but the latest news are not good. Down the drain, her dreams of a sweet retirement after a distinguished career as a scientist. Down the drain, the possibility of seeing her grandchildren grow up. Down the drain, the expectation she had of a longer life. She is pissed, and so would I.

Bob has stopped eating, and presents the emaciated corpse of one whose days are numbered, literally. There is little left for him to enjoy. Ice chips to cool his mouth, and the warm hand of a volunteer to hold, that's it. Lung cancer will do that to you.

Alice is 97 and wakes up with lots of fears, that someone has been taking advantage of her. Her favorite aide reassures her, and directs her attention to the task at hand. How about getting ready for her shower? The aide tapes a plastic bag around her ulcerated leg. "That's good, less work for you." Alice still has it  in her to care for the one who cares for her. 

Bill was a fighter pilot during World War II, and a damn good one. On one of the walls, I read that he flew over fifty missions. After she is done washing and dressing him, the aide gives him a thumbs up, and he responds in kind. Top Gun is still living in the old man. Later I see him slumped over his chair, drooling in the common room. 

Kate just arrived at hospice. She's got Alzheimer's and gets confused sometimes. Her daughter tells me she likes beautiful things and still enjoys painting. When I come to wake her up for lunch, I see her stare at the ceiling. I look up and notice for the first time a gorgeous fresco around the light fixture. She knows that I see what she sees, and smiles. I smile back.

The human psyche is funny that way. It often takes coming close to the reality of an existence without, to fully appreciate that which we have. 


  1. Gratitude for this post. It is a needed balance for this season.

  2. This is so beautifully written. It is hard, living with the inevitable changes that come with being an embodied soul. It is difficult to witness as well, and yet this is how it is. We are fragile...and we are compassionate...this compassion allows us to find gratitude amidst the loss...I say this now, as my body shifts from being less strong, back to somewhat stronger again, knowing that eventually MS or something else will send me back to a state of requiring more care again...I say this, having sat with beloveds and strangers in nursing homes for hours over the years. What a gift for the people you spent time with and for your self as well to be blessed with true, open-hearted presence. Interestingly, I have a post going up tomorrow on a related in my body, no matter what.

  3. Well said, I see and experience this every day where I work.

  4. Sabio, Laura, BD, Pooja, thank you so much for gift of your appreciation.

    BD, I am curious, what kind of work do you do?

    Laura, you out of all people ought to be able to relate. I just went over to your blog and was so touch by that last post you wrote. So much grace, in the midst of physical suffering. You are such an inspiration to all your readers!

  5. So moving and genuine. This is the true nature of impermanence that I still struggle to accept.
    Thank you much for sharing.