Friday, June 28, 2013
We Are Equal
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."
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?"
"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 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?