I drove over with my heart pounding in my chest. I still get an adrenaline rush on my way to sit vigil with someone. The prospect of being invited into one of the most intimate experiences in all of life can get my mind racing. What should I bring to the family: stress release aromatherapy for their pulse points? A flameless candle for ambiance? My favorite children's book about death Duck, Death and Tulip? Then I remembered that I don't have to bring them anything but my presence. My calm presence. I remember from going through this myself what I most needed was an emotional lighthouse. Someone to calm me just with their peaceful, steady being. I decided to work on cultivating that for the rest of the ride. I call in my spirit guides and Rob White, my husband on the other side. This exercise of reminding myself that I am not in the driver's seat, and that I have company, always calms me.
I arrived at the senior living facility with snow falling all around reflecting the quiet inside me. I found the way to his room and gently knocked on the door. His family members greeted me. I put my things down and found a chair. My mind was empty. I held no anxiety about WHAT TO DO. I just introduced myself to them and then to their father who was actively dying. They talked easily about this journey they found themselves on. They had experience with death, not exactly like this, but death in some of its other forms. sudden death and prolonged and anticipated Altzheimery death.
I learned all about their lives in a small town, their dogs, they shared photos of things and people that held space in their hearts. After a while I asked if I could read some poems to their father. They said sure.
I started with Robert Frost's "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" I set the scene for him by describing the snowy scenes in the picture book as I read. I knew he had been a big bird lover so I took time to describe each bird on the branches heavy with snow.
Later I read Mary Oliver's poems about dogs.
I would read a poem or two and then, as often happens with this work, move in the direction of some unseen current. Directed by some force of love bigger than myself. I had gathered some truth's about this man from his family that I could now employ to bring some comfort. He had been a pigeon keeper. I had him visualize standing outside his pigeon cages with his finger on the latch to release them. Had him feel the thrill that moment held and then watch as they flew out in a cloud of feathers and motion into the sky. Vanishing. Marveling at what it must have felt like to know with complete confidence where they were headed. A kind of magic.
We visualized some more. I had him imagine standing in the fields of the farm where he had always wanted to live. Had him smell the hay, feel the horse nuzzling his hand, see the corn swaying all around him, hear the chickens in the distance. I was trying to put him in his life one last time. Taking him far away from this senior living facility and hospital bed into the heart of his life, the times he felt full of joy and peace.
At one point his daughter sighed and said, "This is good for me too. I'm loving this,"
This is not the first time a caretaker has been grateful to have someone to pass the time alongside of them. Sitting at the bedside of a loved one as they endure the labor of death is exhausting, heart wrenching and mundane all at the same time. "Slipping away" is a verbal kindness for the living. It truly more akin to labor.
When I left him his daughter asked to hug me. Of course. This work I do is not fancy but the bonds I make with people in a short time feel like bumping into the essence of love. I am humbled to be allowed in. I hope I get to see the pigeon keeper again.
I am a trained end-of-life doula. I provide guidance and support for individuals and families during the end-of-life process.