Approaching the Eternal

I’m writing this a few weeks after your diagnosis. It wasn’t an intimate event at all, so public and so known. It started me to thinking about you, about the role of public service and how you might heal as a public servant. I’m considering you and the things you might be dealing with. I waited to send this to you, wondering whether it was worthy. And then I saw a story last night that pushed me to send.

I’ve thought about you in the moments after your exam, after your vote on the healthcare bill, and after your remark, now, about this considerable enemy. I can’t imagine what you’re experiencing or how you’ll change, how you’ll heal. Perhaps the parade of it all can be a picture of your healing. Of course, healing may not include a cure in your case. You knew once the team explained that this might be the thing that ushered you into the rest of life, the new life, the eternal side of life. You’ll die and this may, as far as we can tell, be how you die. And then there’s the other how in how you die, the nature of your dying rather than the medical cause.

I wonder how you will respond to that slow movement toward newness. It seems that death is a bad thing to most of us. As you see it, I hope you tell us about it as much as you can. I’ve seen spiritual leaders do this, taking the notes of their sufferings and writing them into the records of their followers. I wonder if you will do something like that. Political leaders are also, simply, leaders. There’s no reason why you can’t embrace how you might offer spiritual insights as a politician. You are more than one thing.

I encourage you to tutor us in the eternal’s approach. Before you go, whenever you go, leave us with as much as you can. You’ve served honorably in so many areas of your life that it would be consistent if you did. Of course, it’s completely understandable if you decide that this final approach is a more private one. Maybe all I’m reflecting on is the paradox of living as a servant in a public way all the way til the end. Maybe you’ve already shown us how to live and how to die.

Either way, thank you, Senator McCain.

My Blog: Waiting

I have occasion to stand as a witness before, after, and when people die. The first time this happened, in my residency year two years ago, I was in the medical intensive care unit where I still spend most of my time as a chaplain.

I sat with a sister as her brother died. He was a scientist, believed nothing about the supernatural, and sitting with his sister was undoubtedly a holy moment to me. We talked together, mostly her talking and me listening. She laughed as she told stories.

Explaining that she had never imagined being a sister in this way, I heard her walk through the upset of thinking it’d be the other way around, that he would be the one who watched her breathe her last breaths. She was faithful to him in those last moments. “I won’t ask you to pray,” she had said earlier that morning. “But will you come back and wait with me?” Waiting is what I did.

Planning for Later

Every now and then, I want to point to the increasing need for people I love to have hard conversations about life, about living, and about dying. As an educator and pastor and father and relative, this video touches upon some critical issues worth talking about.

I don’t agree with literal exactness that we can or should choose the way we die, but I do agree with the intentionality behind living well, planning for later, and communicating with loved ones over these matters. I do believe in exercising as much right as we have. And we have the right to communicate our wishes around intensive medical treatment, aggressive and life-sustaining measures, and so forth.

This video feels close, real to me. Even though that rapid response team is small by the comparisons at NMH. I’ve seen 15-20 people in a room and crowding a hall easily, cracking ribs, pumping and sticking, and pounding and trying. And then a nurse, timing the scenario, calling for another person to step up and take over. I’ve seen that for 30-45 minutes.

Beyond that, listen to the story of the video and talk to people about an advance directive for healthcare. And if you can, let that be a part of other important conversations.

And that’s not including talking about money and life insurance and diet and family history. There are many conversations to have. But this one is important.

It’s not morbid. It’s responsible. It’s not short-sighted. It’s visionary and realistic. It’s helpful for you to think through things about your care. It’s relieving for those you love.

Last Breaths

I came to the hospital with televised notions of death. I came thinking of scenes from crime shows and legal shows, where death had already happened or where death came swiftly. I’ve probably read of deaths in fiction where the event stretched a bit. Fanciful notions that never prepared me for being in the room, in the area where that angel hovers. There is nothing like seeing death enter a space, move from one corner to another, and linger.

It seems to me that most deaths come slowly. People die in all kinds of ways. Death is dramatic and traumatic in many cases. Murders and long-term illness. Crimes of passion and crimes of technology. Decisions made by people who care too much and people who don’t care enough. Each can be an agent of death.

I’m learning that life is precious, fragile. The air we have in our lungs is phenomenal in what it does. Lungs make things in our bodies. But that breath leaves. It’s departure sober and quiet. Sometimes it takes a long time for a person to take her last breath. Other times breathing vanished before we really knew it, before the help arrived, before saving interventions began. We had already died, already surrendered to something else, some place else.

Contemplating last breaths makes the next one different. Seeing last breaths daily or almost daily both unhinges me for the silly ways I hear myself wasting air and anchors me in the coming reality of whatever is next. It is certainly a part of my practice that we live toward something and someone and some place beyond these. It makes me italicize last in my mind. Hopefully it’s a spark that ignites better living.

 

The Race

Posted for all those relatives–past and present–who do everything to share those last moments with their lovely ones.

The Race by Sharon Olds

When I got to the airport I rushed up to the desk,

bought a ticket, ten minutes later

they told me the flight was cancelled, the doctors

had said my father would not live through the night

and the flight was cancelled. A young man

with a dark brown moustache told me

another airline had a nonstop

leaving in seven minutes. See that

elevator over there, well go

down to the first floor, make a right, you’ll

see a yellow bus, get off at the

second Pan Am terminal, I

ran, I who have no sense of direction

raced exactly where he’d told me, a fish

slipping upstream deftly against

the flow of the river. I jumped off that bus with those

bags I had thrown everything into

in five minutes, and ran, the bags

wagged me from side to side as if

to prove I was under the claims of the material,

I ran up to a man with a flower on his breast,

I who always go to the end of the line, I said

Help me. He looked at my ticket, he said

Make a left and then a right, go up the moving stairs and then

run. I lumbered up the moving stairs,

at the top I saw the corridor,

and then I took a deep breath, I said

Goodbye to my body, goodbye to comfort,

I used my legs and heart as if I would

gladly use them up for this,

to touch him again in this life. I ran, and the

bags banged against me, wheeled and coursed

in skewed orbits, I have seen pictures of

women running, their belongings tied

in scarves grasped in their fists, I blessed my

long legs he gave me, my strong

heart I abandoned to its own purpose,

I ran to Gate 17 and they were

just lifting the thick white

lozenge of the door to fit it into

the socket of the plane. Like the one who is not

too rich, I turned sideways and

slipped through the needle’s eye, and then

I walked down the aisle toward my father. The jet

was full, and people’s hair was shining, they were

smiling, the interior of the plane was filled with a

mist of gold endorphin light,

I wept as people weep when they enter heaven,

in massive relief. We lifted up

gently from one tip of the continent

and did not stop until we set down lightly on the

other edge, I walked into his room

and watched his chest rise slowly

and sink again, all night

I watched him breathe.