Mel's Healing Pilgrimage 2016

Links to the Camino de Santiago pilgrimages are on the navigation links to the right of the web page.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Just a Matter of Time

There is nothing new in facing death. It's been discussed for thousands of years. And sometimes certain phrases, such as the "to sleep, perchance to dream" soliloquy in Hamlet show that people have ruminated on death versus life ages ago, in words far more poetic than I could offer.

Yet the troubles with family or friends who are slipping away, with death a matter of "when" rather than "if", of "how many days or weeks" rather than "some day in the future", these questions never come easily or become easier with practice. No, there's always a rawness to it, of not wanting to let go.

It's especially acute when there's a bit of an emotional roller coaster involved. Heath and our journey of healing is rarely a straight-forward line. There's usually a twisting road before us. Sometimes, the medical prognosis looks great, other times it's worsening. And sometimes, eventually, it's worsening to the point of just saying "it's just a matter of time."

Just a matter of time.

No amount of time is inconsequential. Every moment counts, to us, to those who love us. Every meal, every bite, every laugh, every tear, it all counts in the calculus of whether life can be more miserable than death itself. I love chocolate, but as the years pass, chocolate increasingly hurts my health and I must choose to limit my consumption of sweets.
To be, or not to be – that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune … 
…’Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep —
To sleep – perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil…

For most, the equation is simple. Death must be avoided at all cost. But I think that given the medical advances we have today, there's a prolongation of a life sustained beyond comfort, joy, and dignity. That complicates the dialogue because we have to wonder how much painful intervention do we want as we near the end. Must we continually try to cheat death, to push off the inevitable, to evade the reality of life's cycles? Many of us understand dignity in life, but cannot discuss the dignity of death.

When do we say that it's time to say goodbye?

I don't think there's one answer for all. We each have our individual world views, faiths, and fears that may or may not coincide with those of our family and friends.

We had lunch with a family member on our way back from a weekend trip. She was hospitalized after a massive heart attack and seemed to survive it, surprising everyone around her. And we left with smiles and laughs. We also left hearing that there wasn't going to be much time left. We left hearing that it's just a matter of time. We left with questions of hospice care.

It's just a matter of time before we must pack up our toys and give them away, because we can't take them with us. We say our goodbyes.

It's just a matter of time, but I want that time to matter.

So I say to those still in our midst: I want to laugh with you. Cry with you. Break bread with you. Rejoice, remorse, reminisce, regret, and reveal with you. We have only so much time left with each other. It may be just a matter of time, but it matters to me.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

When Ashes Feel Like Salt

For some who observe the season of Lent, Ash Wednesday is an anchor that prepares us for the penitential season. Before we get to celebrate life made new on Easter, we positively must recognize that all things must die. Christ died. We must die. Death cannot be evaded and we will one day return to the formless clay from which we were created.

And yet this reminder, this lesson, has for me this year been an unnecessary, almost brutal assault. For it's been an emotional roller coaster for me and for the people I care for in my life. I've lost friends to cancer and accidents, and had scary talks of cancer and hospice for some in my family. All within the span of 4 months.

Stephen and I were taking advantage of his day off to take a walk along the beach. It was a beautiful day, one where we rejoiced in the perfect Southern California temperatures and cloud-dappled sunny skies. We could see for miles and breathed in fresh ocean air. The breeze kept the allergens away and for the first time in over a week I could see clearly, breathe easily, and didn't sneeze once.

So I broke down when I saw that a dear friend had lost his battle with cancer. Stephen held me up against the wall of a building beside the beach so that I wouldn't crumble to the ground. I at first felt the sadness of a life gone too soon, but then felt something more profound, and I didn't expect the pain.

I visited with John and Gerti three days before. The hospital visitor sticker is still in the car, as I hadn't even had time to dispose of it. And I might not. For while I stood by John's bed, Gerti and I were unsure of what was happening. That happens when so much medication and so many procedures are in play. But before I left, before she left for classes, she asked me to lead us in a prayer.

There's no doubt in my heart that we become alive when we are stitched together in prayer. We become one tissue, one heart, as we pray together. And I was grateful to the point of tears to have the opportunity to hold hands with John and Gerti, to pray together, to give thanks, to ask for healing. Our hands were in each other's hands and our hearts beat as one.

So I cried yesterday as I recalled that moment. It was a deep cry. It was a cry of mourning because that moment of love and unity was one that I will not have again. I agonized that I could not pray with John and Gerti again, not here, not in these bodies.

And as Ash Wednesday comes, when ashes are imposed upon our foreheads, when I impose ashes on the foreheads of others, I think this morning, "This doesn't feel like ashes I'm imposing. This feels like salt. This feels like the salt from the tears from our faces."

I guess I'm supposed to learn something from all this. Or remember something. Or share something. But it feels so raw. The circle of life feels disrupted because it's just been a litany of scares and deaths. I need to see friends and family having babies so that I can see that cycle of life spinning gracefully.

I don't want to rub salt in our wounds. I don't want it in my raw flesh. I want to feel the fresh air of life. I want to feel the spray of the ocean.

I guess there's the rub, isn't it? We can't appreciate life around us, life renewed in front of us, if we don't recognize death, as well. Our faces may be cleansed by the spray of the ocean, but even in that baptismal washing, we can taste the salt, and our toes are grounded in the sand. I like others want the joys of today, every day.

But the joys, the hands held in prayer, the hugs, they are all temporary. We all return to the land from where we came. We cannot hold on to the illusion of permanence. We can only hold on to the promise of love that never ends, of lives made new, of an understanding that our lives do not belong to us but are a gift to use as best we can for the time we have.

Today, I await the imposition of ashes. Today, I feel the intrusion of the salt. Today is only for today.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Difficult Discussions

Stephen and I just had a difficult discussion. We were talking about advance medical directives, living wills, and health care durable power of attorney issues. We've never talked about this at length, other than some sad chats after the movie "Million Dollar Baby".

But recently, the family has had to confront these issues. Jim, my father-in-law, is currently caring for his longtime companion, Sheila, who had a massive heart attack this week. She was on a ventilator and there wasn't any confidence that she would ever be able to breathe on her own again. Moreover, her kidneys apparently were no longer working. By Thursday, the family was dealing with a situation where even if she could breathe without the ventilator, we had to be ready to face hospice options. It was a painful discussion for Sheila's sister and Jim.

Fortunately, with much of our family and friends praying with us, we took out the ventilator and she was able to breathe on her own. By the end of the day, when Stephen and I arrived at the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit of St. Joseph Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo, California, she perked up into her smiling, feisty ways and immediately wanted to hold our hands, give her a kiss, hug us, and chat away. Sheila was "Sheila" and we had to remind her to not speak too loudly and to breathe deeply since she was just on a ventilator. Best of all, her kidneys seemed to be working once again, and talk of hospices are for now on hold

We're thrilled and filled with joy and gratitude. And it's a marked contrast to the dread and sadness we all felt. Sheila's had a colourful life and though her memory has been slipping more quickly lately, she is still a character.

Many people, perhaps most people, are uncomfortable talking about health care options in crisis or terminal illness situations. Many don't have wills much less living wills. Yet accidents and health care emergencies can happen at any time. Are we ready to deal with this? Are you?

I want to say that we resolved everything this morning but our difficult discussions are only beginning. There are lots of things to consider. Stephen, for example, would rather I make all the decisions but agrees that it would a painful burden to place on me. And I wonder how our feelings will change as we get older and how often we will need to change these directives.

But it's a start. Healing isn't just for those who are gravely ill, but also for those who remain here. For us to walk our camino of healing, we have to face everyone's healing, not just our own. We can't do it ourselves. We have to talk, in trust, in love, with mutual respect. In a way, how can healing occur without all that?

I hope that you don't face these issues but the reality is we all must at some point, for ourselves and our families. I can't pray that you won't face this, but I will pray that you will be granted wisdom, compassion, and strength as you confront transitions to the life beyond our visible world. I pray that you can plan and talk in advance, so that when the time comes, you can walk in that thin space aware of the love and light guiding you. And when you or someone must walk through that sacred veil to the other side, we can during that journey intertwine our fingers not out of fear, but out of love, life, and grace.