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"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Friday, June 20, 2008

Dying yet behold we live.

I woke up early this morning to the sound of a woman's cry.

I thought it was Gail and, even though it slowly dawned on me that I was in my own home, my body pressed on, my rational brain misfiring the messages to my legs. Still, I went from room to room, searching for her.

I had spent most of the night sitting with the family of Gail, my parishioner who has become a dear friend, who is dying.

"Actively dying" as she reminded me. That's a hospice term which I happened to mention in conversation with her a few years ago. It stuck in her head and popped up a few days ago when she was clearly failing.

She could barely breathe but as we struggled to get her up out of her reclining chair, and she paused a bit to catch her breath before taking the next steps. She looked at me and asked, "Actively dying?"

"No, not yet my love," I responded. "Not quite yet." She nodded her head and, as she took another breath and momentarily searched her body for the strength to move, she stuck out her chin and took a few steps before she turned to sit in her wheel chair.

Gail will tell you that she has been fighting ovarian cancer for 10 years and 7 months. Please highlight the word "fight". Anyone who knows will tell you that her longevity has forever changed the statistics on longevity. Ten years ago when she was diagnosed, life expectancy was about two years. Remember: Gilda Radner.

Gail is now, and will forever be, my North Star of Courage. She has fought an amazing fight. And now, she is fighting with God about when to take her. She has people she wants to see. People she has called to be around her bedside.

She called her family together yesterday. One daughter flew in from North Carolina with her two small children. The other daughter flew in from California - arguing with the airline personnel to please put her on that plane - yes, that one right there - the one she had booked her flight for but hadn't made it to the airport to present her boarding pass before the required 15 minutes when the gate closes.

They told her they were sorry, but these were just the rules, lady. Nothing personal. Security, you see. Blame it on the terrorists. Like the persistent woman in Luke's gospel, she pressed on, telling her story about her dying mother to whomever would listen. She finally found someone - a ticket agent with a heart - who took pity and did and let her on the plane. She arrived at her mother's house at 9 PM, followed a half hour later by her sister and nieces.

The apples do not fall far from the tree.

So, late last night, amidst enough tears and sadness to break the heart, her daughters, her husband ("my one true love"), her sister and her husband, the nurse's aid and my beloved Ms. Conroy, Hospice Nurse extraordinaire, gathered around Gail's bed. To tell her we love her. To tell her we are going to miss her terribly. To tell her that while we were happy for any time we had left with her on this earth, to go whenever she wanted or needed.

"Jackie!" she said, calling for her other sister in England, who seems not to be able to get a flight out of either Gatwick or Heathrow. At that point, I knew she wouldn't leave us last night. Not if she could. Not until Jackie gets here. If she can possibly make it.

It's almost 9 AM. I'm heading over to see Gail in about 30 minutes. Later, I am scheduled to have lunch with a dear friend. Meanwhile, the air conditioning is being installed in the undercroft of the parish hall where all our offices are located. And, Jose is here to install the new garage door openers. The persistent but as yet unfounded rumor is that today is my day off.

I sat out on my deck around 6:30 this morning and heard the birds chirping while the garbage trucks came to pick up the trash and young adolescent boys and girls called to each other as they walked to high school.

A phrase from some of the words of St. Paul found their way to me and whispered themselves in my ear, ". . .dying, yet behold we live. . ." (II Corinthians 6:9)

It is, in one sense, a description of everyday experience, the fact that all of life is fragile, and yet, in the midst of it, we are sustained by God's presence and love.
It is also a beautiful, poetic summary of Christian faith and hope.

Long after she's gone from this earth, every time I hear a woman's cry, my brain will probably always misfire, and I will hear it as Gail's voice.

Whenever I get scared, even though it makes no logical sense, I will continue to look for her. She will always be my North Star of courage.

Gail is now, finally, "actively dying", yet behold, she will always live.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this, I was very inspired by your compassion & the courage of everyone in this story.

Jim said...


Receive her Lord, a child of your adoption. May she rest in peace when she is ready and rise in glory in your time.


Grandmère Mimi said...

Yes, to the quote from Paul. Yes, to "actively dying", yet she lives.

May Gail and all who love her be at peace.

This post reminds me of another Gayle. Her fight was not long, but she fought hard.

May God bless you, Elizabeth, for your service.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

That phrase "actively dying" rings so true, as well as Gail's inner sense of "when it's happening." It reminds me of the hospital patients over the years, who look like they're stable, even appearing to rally a bit, but look their caregivers in the eye and say, "I'll be gone tomorrow/in a couple of days/I'm not going to make it out of here except feet first." More times than not, they were right, much to the dismay and sometimes shock of their care team.

They knew something in their inner being that was happening, transforming, (dare I use the word "transfiguration?) that cannot be measured by blood pressure, respirations, and pulse. I wonder what that feels like. I have always wanted to ask that of the "actively dying" but never could bring myself to it, as it must be a highly personal thing and to even ask seems like such a violation at such a personal time.