photo credit: Amy Melious, Winter Branches
As this year o'2010 draws to a close, I find myself in an even more reflective state than usual in this passageway between old year and new. I start December full of busy intention, then shed all but the most essential plans and expectations of self as the days whoosh by, leaving me bewildered as to how I once again ended up so unprepared for all the doing/making/buying/sending that is Christmas. Wasn't I going to start earlier, having learned my lesson from all the previous turbulent December rides?! Why is personal change so hard to enact? It's like trying to use the same materials to make two vastly different products, say, a sweater and a guitar.
But this holiday season has been different for other reasons. Reasons that dissipated all my busy intentions and blew them away like a snow swirl in a gale. This Christmas was no ordinary happy holidays. No, this Christmas was a time to mark the days leading up to an incredible woman's departure from this life. My husband's Aunt Faye was in the thick of being a vibrant, compassionate elementary school principal in a low-income school with a large population of non-native-English-speaking students. She had a dazzling smile, a hardcore work ethic, a keen intellect and a rippling laugh. She listened intently and was extremely intuitive and insightful. At Thanksgiving, she was diagnosed with an incurable, degenerative neurological brain disorder called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, and by Christmas she had ventured from this life into new, uncharted territory beyond.
Along with the sadness and surrealism of witnessing an amazing woman's dying days and her family's and friends' sorrow, there is something else I feel. I feel enriched. Faye, at 60 years old, was working, living and loving passionately. She was giving life all she had and was inspiring people of all ages as she went about her days.
Her family, friends and colleagues gathered during a week that would normally be dominated by holiday preparations. In place of all that hustle-bustle, we sat.
We sat with Faye.
She could no longer speak, and the silence of sitting with Faye was profound. It left us with time to contemplate who she was while still in her presence, listening to her breathing, holding her hand. Each visitor who came and each story told about her added to the resounding consensus that she was extraordinary and beloved.
The vulnerability of her position touched me deeply. She couldn't make decisions, couldn't move, couldn't speak, couldn't eat or drink. I wondered if those who were charged with caring for her and making decisions concerning her felt humbled by so weighty a responsibility. It seemed like tenderly and gingerly caring for a very powerful, beautiful, rare bird that had been injured, with the uncertainty and hope that you were helping and not hurting, wishing she could tell you what she wanted, felt and needed.
Somewhere in the interlude of sitting in a room with Faye, when there was nowhere else to be but there, all of life was distilled down to what remains when there are no more plans and no more activity. I found that what remains are the transcendent properties of faith, hope and love, just as found in the biblical passage I Corinthians 13:13: "And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love." Love carries the day and covers us when we are stripped bare.
This Christmas I was given the gift of this interlude, and I am enriched by the last hours I spent with Faye. Even in dying, she imparted something so deep and true that I hope to still be contemplating it when life resumes its usual distractions and demands. I hope it will anchor me and give shape and purpose to all I undertake henceforth. I am thankful for the time I had to keep vigil with Faye and her family and friends. I kept wondering why I was there, and I think I know now that it was for me to receive nourishment that can only be spiritually discerned and digested.
Faye, thank you for the gift of this interlude. May your life and your death continue to inspire and touch us. And may I seek more than just self-improvement or personal change; may I seek nothing short of transformation, the kind that radiates like your smile and ripples like your laughter.
photo credit: Amy Melious