This year I have had to mentally set another place at my already full table. The guest who is occupying that seat is death.
Not the immediate death that leaves us stunned or crushed by the unexpected loss of a loved one. Not the one who slides in and out so quickly, leaving nothing but grief behind to tell us that it was here in our midst when we were not looking.
No this death is of a different sort. It is the uninvited guest that rings the doorbell on a bright sunny fall day and steps quietly past into our midst while we stand there wondering who, or what, was at the door.
It is the uninvited guest who hangs around eavesdropping on life’s plans and shifts the pieces of these plans in annoying and confusing ways.
It is the uninvited guest who interjects in our conversations steering them toward upsetting things we can’t bring ourselves to even think about, let alone discuss.
It is the uninvited guest who even has the gall to slip into bed beside us at night and steel our restful and restorative sleep, leaving behind fitful dreams of things to be done and things left undone.
I didn’t want this guest. This guest was NOT in my plans. I have a full enough house as it is, without this thing – this death – moving in too.
But here it is nonetheless, staring me in the face, making me look back at it. Get comfortable with it. Serve it tea and cookies and walk it around the mall. Forcing me to come to know it, for what it is – a step in our journey to everlasting life – a giver of gifts. Gifts of patience, understanding, grace, wonder, knowledge. IF only we are able to stand back and see what it has to offer:
A chance to sit and hold the hand of one who is on the cusp of being with God. To see in this person’s far-off stare - their twinkling eyes - not a drug, or illness-induced confusion but perhaps the reflection of what is beyond us who remain rooted to this earth.
I would, perhaps, not have been able to look at this journey this way if it had not been for a paradigm shift in my own brain about the dying process and two books that exposed a different take on what it is to face life’s end.
The first was the book This too Shall Pass:Being a Caregiver for the Elderly by Ginny Sisk, delivered one night by my neighbor along with a dinner of delicious soup, salad and cookies. The food was a blessing during the chaos of last autumn, but the book turned out to be the much greater gift. In it Sisk writes eloquently about her time caring for her dying father-in-law and Alzheimer-ridden mother-in-law. I was overwhelmed by the similarities between Sisk’s situation and the one I currently found myself in.
Then shortly after I began to read Sisk’s memoir a Hospice employee gave me her copy of Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs and Communications of the Dying by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley. This was one I had on my “to read” list for a while. Final Gifts shares, through delicate and poignant real-life stories, how the dying come to face their impending death.
These two brief windows into what is often viewed as the scariest time in life helped me see death for what it can be - an uninvited guest who, when it finally steps away, will have left behind some of life’s most precious gifts.