At the beginning of my practicum for pastoral counselling, I was assigned two residents to visit regularly – once a week on Thursdays in a private Long Term Care facility. I would spend the morning with one and the afternoon with the other. My morning was spent with Fern, an 80 year-old amputee. She had in mid-life, worked as an executive assistant to a professor at a university and had, while there taken the opportunity to study things that interested her – such as Chinese civilization.
Her husband, with whom she shared her room, had been an aeronautical engineer. Before entering the Home, they had spent the winters of their retirement years in Phoenix Arizona, where they took an interest in the indigenous aboriginal culture and customs. Her husband had taken up making jewelry from local gemstones. Sadly, he now had severe dementia and was bedridden much of the time. Fern cared for him faithfully.
Fern had prosthetics which she would wear sometimes. Otherwise, she would pull herself from the bed to a wheelchair and navigate the halls quite well by herself. She had a great sense of humour and a wisdom developed from life experience which often led me to believe that we could switch roles – I was learning from her more than she was gaining from me. We developed a relationship that was warm, interesting and mutually enriching. I dug deep to find out as much as I could about her to help nurture her interests. She had been fond of writing poetry – something she had stopped doing for a long time – but which re-emerged when it was encouraged. I brought art supplies and we spent time in the sunroom, drawing, painting and chatting. She ran by me many of her theological doubts and concerns, trying to reconcile her early upbringing in the Christian faith with what she had learned over a lifetime – learning about the Chinese civilization, the aboriginals in Arizona.
In the third year of my visits with her, her husband’s health began to fail rapidly and was dying. Fern sat vigil with him, staying by his bedside until she was no longer able to stay awake. It was between visits that he died and the chaplain from the Home called me to tell me that there was a viewing at the funeral home, if I wanted to pay my respects. Concerned about how Fern might be feeling, I sought her out as soon as I entered the funeral parlour. Surrounded by friends and family, she seemed well, even radiant. When I approached her to offer my condolences, she said “You should have been there! It was amazing! The whole experience felt like he was giving birth – I felt like I was giving birth! I haven’t felt like this since I gave birth to my children!” The awe with which she expressed this was so palpable that I realized it was I who was more emotionally distraught than she was. She embraced the experience as a process of birth. This was not an intellectual metaphor for her but a genuine living encounter. I have since then, been able to still my own emotional response to death and dying to be open to the sense of awe and wonder during this most significant passage – the transition of the spirit from its bodily imprisonment to its new birth. From the B’hai writings, translated from the Persian:
In the time of sleep, this body is as though dead;
it does not see nor hear; it does not feel;
it has no consciousness, no perception –
that is to say, the powers of man have become inactive, but the spirit lives and subsists.
Nay, its penetration is increased, its flight is higher, and its intelligence is greater.
To consider that after the death of the body the spirit perishes
is like imagining that a bird in a cage will be destroyed if the cage is broken,
though the bird has nothing to fear from the destruction of the cage.
Our body is like the cage and the spirit is like the bird.
We see that without the cage this bird flies in the world of sleep;
therefore if the cage becomes broken, the bird will continue and exist.
Its feelings will be even more powerful, its perceptions greater, and its happiness increased.
In truth, from hell it reaches a paradise of delights
because for the thankful birds
there is no paradise greater than freedom from the cage.