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Friday, June 28, 2013

We Are Equal

On the day DOMA was struck down and Prop 8 fell, not everyone was glued to CNN or MSNBC.

I was working that day. Hospice. It was a pretty frenetic day, made even busier by the fact that one of my patients, a woman in her 60s with metastatic cancer, was actively dying.

Oh, and she happens to be a lesbian. She - I'll call her "Jane" -  and her wife - I'll call her "Judy" - and I have done some really good work these past few months.  We've worked on things like forgiveness and gratitude and generosity. Big stuff. Important work.

I am not exaggerating when I tell you that it has been an enormous privilege.

I had seen Jane just two days before, on Monday.  She looked even more emaciated - if that was possible - than the last time I had seen her, two weeks before. Think: Adult Caucasian Starving Ethiopian Child. Like that.

But, fighter that she is, just the week before we had talked on the phone and she said that she felt so good that she was giddily cancelling our appointment because "the house was full of company" and, she said, "I'm feeling so much better."

When I saw her on Monday, all of that "Hospice High" had crashed again in what was part of the emotional and physical roller coaster that had marked her entire Hospice journey.

I had walked into her room and she had said, "You know, I woke up this morning and I said, 'I'm done.' I'm so done."

"Okay," I said, "What are you done with?"

"I'm done with feeling sick. I'm done with fighting this. I'm done with the struggle."

"Okay. I hear you. So," I asked, "are you ready?"

"What do you mean?" she asked. "Am I ready for what?"

"Well," I said, "If you're done with fighting and the struggle of dying, are you ready for death?"

"NO!" she said. "Absolutely not!"

"So, if you are done with fighting," I asked "how do you propose to stay alive?"

"Oh," she said. "Right. Hmmm .... well, see.... the thing of it is ..... that .... I. Just. Can't. Let. Go."

It made sense. This is a woman who has spent her entire life passionately engaged in service to the community. For years, she did public health awareness, education and training in schools - junior high, high school, college, med school, social workers, nursing, and lawyers. She was also an activist and fought the good fight for justice at local, state and federal levels.

I found her to have a keen sense of curiosity, unafraid to ask simple yet searing questions. She also possessed a rare combination of insight and intelligence as well as a deep sense of caring and compassion.  Fiercely independent, she was also deeply grateful for and generous with the mutual interdependence she shared with her beloved wife as well as her family and friends and community.

And, she was Episcopalian. My kinda gal.

So we talked about letting go and what that might look like. We did some visualization that tried to move her out of her body and into places she considered "Paradise".

Her first fantasy was playing tennis with Martina Navratilova at Wimbledon.

Classic lesbian fantasy about 'paradise'. Classic and classy.

Two days later, I got a text message from her social worker. "Jane actively dying. Says I want Elizabeth, my Chaplain. Direct quote."

I moved my schedule around, made a few phone calls, and started the 40 minute trip to her home.

I arrived to find her in bed with her wife, Judy. Jane had just had another panic attack. I couldn't believe that she was even more emaciated than I had seen her two days before.

Neither had slept all night. Both were beyond exhaustion, operating on mere fumes, teetering on tears and moving closer and closer to an absolute emotional melt down. 

I got Judy to take a break, encouraging her to go wash her face, get something cold to drink and sit on the deck with her family. I started working on lowering the levels of Jane's emotional state.

She had just taken an oral dose of liquid Morphine for the pain, which she could have every 30 minutes. I encouraged that. No Hospice patient dies in pain. Period. End of sentence. Not on my watch. Not for any Hospice professional worth her/his salt.

I started doing visualization and breathing techniques as an augment to the Morphine. Pretty soon, we were back at Wimbledon and then walking the boardwalk at Rehoboth Beach at sunset.

It started to work. Suddenly, her breathing got more even and she fell asleep.

For ten whole minutes.

Then, she opened her eyes and said brightly, as if nothing had happened, "Hey, so, I've been a little out of the loop. What's going on in the world that I've missed?"

I chuckled my way through being initially startled - I should have been used to this with her by now, but wasn't - and I said, "Well, I'm sure you've heard that DOMA is dead and Prop 8 has fallen."

"What?" she said, her eyes getting wide. "DOMA is dead? Prop 8 has fallen? Really? I mean, what does that mean? Does that mean what I think it means?"

"Yes," I smiled. "Yes, it does."

She looked absolutely astounded. "Oh. My. God," she said. "I never thought I'd live to see the day."

"Honestly?" I responded, "Neither did I."

"But, what does this mean?" she asked, her mind still whirring with curiosity. "Does this mean that our marriages have to be recognized by the federal government?" 

"Yes, it does," I said. "Oh, we've still got a long way to go, and we're going to have to fight this, state by state, until something (else) happens and we can go before SCOTUS again, but it's still a pretty terrific start."

She put her head back on the pillow and a most beautiful smile came over her entire, emaciated face. I mean, she simply glowed with an inner light that beamed through the skin on her face which was stretched taught over the bones of her face.

Suddenly, the hideousness of death-by-cancer faded and she was beautiful again.

She said, "We are equal." She smiled again. "How about that? We. Are. Equal."

And then, she closed her eyes, her hand dropped limp on the bed, and she stopped breathing.

I can't describe the next few moments as my mind tried to scramble to make sense of what was happening.

Her nurses' aide, who had been in the room with us, gasped and said, "Oh, my God."

I watched Jane very carefully. Her color went from pale to pasty. She was definitely not breathing.

"Jane! Jane!" her aide called to her from over my shoulder. "Jane! Open your eyes, Jane!"

Nothing. No response. I asked the aide to go get Judy.

She ran out of the room and down the hall, and I put my hand gently on Jane's arm and said her name.

In that moment, Judy waked into the room, eyes brimming with tears, as Jane's eyes opened wide and she said, "Judy! Did you hear the news? No more DOMA. Isn't that wonderful? We're equal, baby."

Judy burst into tears and then got hold of her emotions and said, "No, I hadn't heard. We've been sort of busy here. Not watching TV. Or, getting any sleep."

No, I'm not sure what happened. Maybe Jane was simply so overjoyed, she fainted. Perhaps she had had another one of her seizures.

And maybe, just maybe, she had had a 'petite mort' - a little death, perhaps even the way the French use it as a euphemism - and fortunately or unfortunately, my touch and hearing her name had been enough to call her back from the thin veil into which she had stepped. 

Judy crawled back into bed with her wife and held her close. "I think I"m just going to stay here with you, if that's alright."

I said some prayers and gave them both a blessing and lots of strong hugs and gentle kisses and made my way to leave.

"See you next week?" Jane called out.

"We'll see," I said and blew her a kiss.

"We ARE equal," she called out. "How about that? We ARE equal."

Two hours later, I got a text message from Judy. Jane died peacefully in Judy's arms, surrounded by family and friends.

She thanked me for bringing the news about DOMA and Prop 8. Apparently, she wrote, it was what Jane needed to hear in order to finally let go.

I think that was so for us all. It's what we've all been dying to hear. To let go of all the messages that told us that we were less than. Worthless. Not equal.

We've been so done with the fighting and the struggle, it's been hard to think about doing anything else with our lives except fighting and struggling.

We can all begin to let go of all that now, and move into a new reality that brings us closer to an image of the Realm of God. To channel all that energy into working to bring our own images of 'paradise' to this side of Eden for ourselves and the rest of humankind.

As Louie Crew has said for years, "The meek are getting ready."

We are equal.

How about that?

24 comments:

Heather said...

Very touching story

Chilebnr said...

Heavenly!!!!!!!!
thanks for writing!!!

Chilebnr said...
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Susan Pederson said...

What a beautiful story, Elizabeth! Your work is so very important. To be able to spend the last days with someone and help them to prepare their way is quite an honor and privilege reserved for so few. Thank you for the work you do! It's great to be equal!!

Sextant said...

Beautiful albeit sad post! The Grace of God truly touches humanity through your hospice work. God bless and keep you, Elizabeth.

I wish I could totally agree that we are equal. We? I am a heterosexual man married to a woman. Yes we. Because we are all children of God and we all should have the basic human right to love and marriage as we see fit. Being a resident of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, we are not equal....I am better than you because the state tells me that my marriage is valid not only in Pennsylvania but in every state of the union and probably most of the world. I am A-OK, yet Pennsylvania tells another couple just as much in love, just as human as my wife and I, that they are not fit for marriage--wrong plumbing sorry. We are not equal. In Pennsylvania Judy would be Jane's partner, or lover, or lesbian friend but not her wife.

I think of my wife. Is she my lover, my partner, my heterosexual friend? Yes, but she is a lot more than that. She is my wife, my spouse. We are one flesh under the state and under God. What right does the Federal government or the state government have to deny me of this. And how can we as Americans look ourselves in the eye and say well a marriage that is legal in Delaware does not have to be recognized in Pennsylvania. States rights.

The SCOTUS action the other day was not so much of a victory as it was a battle that we could not afford to lose. Yes we, Americans gay and hetero. It was a step in the right direction, but I am hesitant to call it a victory.

But we are not equal, not yet. I am better than you, I am more fit for marriage than you. If I move to another state, no one will say my marriage is invalid. Can you say that? I am better than you. Not because I believe that, but because the state says it is so. And that is a national travesty.

Anonymous said...

This is not the first time one of your posts has made me cry. I'm sitting here at my desk feeling thrilled, shaken and embarrassed all at the same time.
My wife and I were out to dinner on Wednesday, and happened upon a huge glorious parade up the center of town, men and women and children and balloons and banners, and people everywhere applauding, whooping, cheering, chanting. Organizers were running around with stickers, and everywhere I looked people were wearing these beautiful hearts with the words MARRIAGE EQUALITY! in the center. A very good day was Wednesday, indeed. Your story has added to the flavor of that memory.
Lou Poulain, from Sunnyvale CA

C said...

This is beyond amazing! Thank you for sharing this story, and thank you for the extraordinary human being you are. Blessings.
Connie Schroeder

Mary Beth said...

I keep coming back to read this again. It's sublime. Thank you.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Susan - It is an enormous privilege. I am so richly blessed.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Your anger as a heterosexual married man gives me great hope. Thank you.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Lou. I usually don't write about my Hospice experiences, and I worked very hard to protect the identity of these two women but the story happened just as I wrote it. It amazes me still.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Connie - I am richly blessed.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Mary Beth - I knew I had to write about it. It's a story that carries lots of potential for healing.

Anonymous said...
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JCF said...

In California, I'm crying happy tears, because same-sex MARRIAGES were just returned to us *today*.

...and yet, I'm also crying sad tears, because a member of my church choir---a gay man whose partner also sings in our choir---just dropped dead last Saturday (at choir rehearsal last night, we started practicing for his memorial next week, many of us caring for his partner). :-(

So many have died, to get us to this point. And we still have a long ways to go. Maranatha!

Anonymous said...
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Will J said...

You have made a grumpy and cranky old man cry.

Beautiful!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Anonymous - Thank you for your comment, dubious as it was. Leave your name and I'll post it.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

JCF - I believe we have gotten to this point BECAUSE of so many in our community who died of AIDS. It was a heavy price to pay, and it never should have happened, but I do think we're where we are because of the great losses of AIDS.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, Will J

Malcolm+ said...

Again with the making me cry. A poignant story.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Well, you know I am not one for crying. But I had to hunt around the house for a Kleenex after reading this one. God bless you for finding a way to tell this story.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, Malcolm. It wasn't an easy story to tell, but it had to be told.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Kirke - Some stories just beg to be told, even if you have to change the names to protect your patients.