Monday, March 31, 2014

All Rivers Return to the Ocean -- the Zen Hospice Evening of Remembrance

We sat in backless chairs in what was called the big room when Jean stayed there, a living/dining area that was large enough to seat dozens at the 2012 holiday banquet. We faced an altar that held two ceramic bowls, one filled with petals, the other with water. In front of the altar, on the floor, was a wide, cylindrical, clear glass vase, nearly as tall as the altar.  In back of the altar was a gong with a striker.

The hospice volunteer coordinator began the ceremony by asking us to consider, hold in our hearts, the possibility that this ceremony might be the very last time some of the names we were going to hear would ever be spoken aloud: some of us die alone, with no intimates to hold us in loving memory.  Then the hospice staff took turns coming up to the altar, each reading a handful of names from a list of sixty-two of the departed.  After they read, they took petals from one bowl, sprinkled them on the water in the other, and tolled the gong.

When all the names had been spoken, they read The Thing Is, a poem by Ellen Bass.  If Ellen's right, and the thing is to emerge from grief and to love life again, some will need to raise our sights.  When Jean was at the hospice, a good friend told us she had accomplished something truly major in the year after she lost her partner to a brain tumor: she had survived.  Now I understand. Perhaps embracing life comes in year two.

After hearing from a celebrated poet, the mourners had their say.  We passed a small "talking" object along the rows of chairs: holding it in your hand gave permission to speak your remembrance.  One said his loved one's dying was a "great experience" -- yes, he used that very phrase -- while another, searching for words that reflected the glow, offered "death with community."  One of the hospice staff said it was a privilege, a great honor, for families to allow them in "behind the curtain," to help them during their most difficult time.  Whether you're at home or in the hospice, family life is what it is: one woman, who lost her father at the hospice, got a laugh by thanking the staff for putting up with her mom, when "she was so annoying."

One of the night attendants -- at the Zen Hospice, staff can also be mourners -- recalled Jean through tears: how unable to stand without assistance, she'd quipped "let's dance" when they helped her out of bed; the pleasure Jean took in having her hair dyed a startling shade of blue-black, in getting a manicure.  I used my time to say Jean would have appreciated the significance of the last time names would be spoken: she had a way of remembering the forgotten, making the ordinary seem special.

They closed the ceremony with another ritual, tossing a handful of salt into the tall, clear vase, and leaving us with the thought that "All rivers return to the ocean at some point.". Whether we have intimates or not, all of us are destined to be forgotten, as the people we knew die themselves, as the ripples made by our lives fade away. If we want any resonance from our lives to continue, it can only be as part of something larger than ourselves.  Opinions about that something vary greatly.

After the ceremony, the refreshments.  We migrated from the big room toward the kitchen, after being admonished to be mindful of the residents and their families upstairs.  Food is always a high point at the Zen Hospice. The kitchen staff is excellent, and the mood is impatient with abstinence: might as well enjoy what you can, when you're living under the shadow of death. This time, the vegan chocolate chip cookies and the apple slices infused with spices were especially noteworthy.  We crowded around a table piled with such savory delights, saying the hellos and goodbyes that would need to last until 2015.  

Before the ceremony, one of the staff had told me it could be a tad disorienting to see people he knew from the hospice, on the outside.  There was often a moment of confusion, and then after the recognition -- oh yeah, that's where I know you from -- came the question of how those two pieces of a life could possibly fit together.

I may know what he meant. Zen Hospice is so special, so small, a place like no other, where you can be initiated into the mysteries of compassion.  And the big, bad world?  It can be demanding, threatening, can it not, with firm boundaries essential?  And every so often, it does afford exhilarating adventures.

Walking toward the hospice on the way to the remembrance ceremony, the hospice reality inside me growing stronger, I could not help but measure my life across the year that had passed since Jean did.  A bit like the approach of Yom Kippur for Jews, or a Catholic en route to confession.  Was I really more compassionate?

Maybe.  I'd helped my younger son get into a drug rehab program, and now we're hanging out together on weekends, working on my house, laughing and talking more than we ever did.  But boundaries are important there too: family life is what it is. There be times when you need to call on whatever resources you have, from wherever, breathe deeply, and say what you need to say. Watching someone die, someone you really love, is terrible -- I would never call it a "great experience."  But you can draw strength from that memory. You stayed to the end.  Now, afterwards, keep going.

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