Though I don't believe we should be fixated on pain, suffering, and death, I do think that acknowledging it as a part of life is necessary for mental and spiritual health. Our contemporary western culture subtly tries to remove all trace of discomfort from our everyday lives. Pain can easily be remedied by any number of pain relievers; sickness and death for the most part are relegated to the controlled and sanitized environment of a health care facility. Funerals are conducted by professionals in subdued, wood-panelled chapels. All of it tends to distance us from the reality of suffering and in my opinion, we are doing ourselves a great disservice. When we do actually have to come face to face with pain or look at our own mortality, we are woefully unprepared. We spend so much of our energy trying to avoid the unavoidable that it always catches us off-guard.
In Norris' book, Acedia & Me, she tells about the slow physical decline of her husband (a cancerous lung removed, a pulmonary edema, repeated episodes of bronchitis and pneumonia, surgery for a broken hip, etc.) and her ensuing role as caregiver and crisis manager over the period of nearly 5 years. She began to be thankful for small things like waking up to hear her husband breathing, being able to go out for dinner on occasion when he had the strength, or the pleasant view out their hotel window. In her writing, I don't see ongoing laments about suffering or pain; there is an acceptance that this is part of life, there is gratefulness for another day with her beloved, and most of all, a desire to do the best that she can for him. She describes his final moments with serenity, humour, and painful realism. One cannot say that Norris tries to sweep suffering and death under the carpet. What she does do is try to respond to it with honesty, dignity, hope, and bravery. I am much inspired by her example.
Here are some of her words which moved me this week:
I watched the monitors as his heart rate slowly declined. The nurses told me it could take an hour or more for him to die, and asked whether I wanted anyone with me, whether I would be all right. I told them that I needed this time with my husband. I hadn't requested a chaplain, but one appeared at the door and asked if he could pray with us. I couldn't refuse, and was grateful that the man had a gift for spontaneous prayer. He asked whether there was a Scripture passage I'd like him to read, and I said Psalm 27. But, casting a suspicious eye on the Bible in his hands, I asked, "What translation is that?" It was the New International Version. "That's not acceptable," I told him, and explained that my husband was a poet and needed more beautiful language. As I did not want to let go of my husband's hand I asked him to dig out the Book of Common Prayer from my purse. It had been a gift from David (her husband) many years before. Hospital chaplains must receive many odd requests, but the man proved reluctant to root around in a woman's handbag. This is becoming quite the spectacle, I told David, but I am only trying to find you a decent translation. I am certain that he heard me. I would not let go of his hand, but I did take my eyes off him for a moment as I attempted a one-handed retrieval of the book from the depths of my bag. While I was thus occupied, the nurse told us, "His heart has stopped." I could only sigh and say that David was always doing this to me in airports, too. The minute my back was turned, he'd be off somewhere, and I'd have to go look for him. "See," the nurse replied, "he was being himself, right up to the end."
I asked the chaplain to read the psalm, and after a brief but moving prayer of blessing on us and our marriage, he and the nurse departed. I stayed with David to honor the deep silence in the room and say a few final loving words. When I could let his hand go, I went to the nurses and told them I wanted to help with the body. I find this an admirable Benedictine practice: in at least one community I know, it is the job of the prioress to wash and dress the corpse of a sister. The nurses hesitated, but by now they knew that I was not likely to become hysterical. The body bag they brought was white - the color of mourning in Japan, I thought idly - as I helped them wipe David's body, now heavy with edema, and move it into the bag. The sound of the zipper was horrid, final.
I did feel fragile and disconnected after David died. But I found a prayer for myself - also among those intended for the sick - that proved suitable for my mourning and my continuing struggle with acedia: "This is another day, O Lord. I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be. If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely. if I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly. It I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently. And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly. Make these words more than words, and give me the Spirit of Jesus. Amen."
Thanks, Kathleen. Real words for a real world.
Quotes taken from Acedia & Me by Kathleen Norris (Riverhead Books, 2008), 246-247, 251.
the photo: boats at the Old Port of Montreal this summer.