I remember my mother setting down her mandolin one day, and stating simply “I guess I won’t play anymore”. I listened to Debra tell me that her rosary beads still hung around her neck, where they’d been for 40 years, but it was a tremendous effort to use them now. I knew looking at Belinda’s pictures decorating her walls, evidence of true giftedness and joyful expression, that they were the last vestige of her artistic talents and her brushes and paints would lay idle in their drawer now. They each had such graceful acceptance as life ebbed and losses mounted.
I likened my leaving this past week to a lesson in loss. We do an exercise in hospice, it’s not a game since there isn’t a prize and I wouldn’t call it entertainment. We hand out small squares of paper; each person gets a certain number of cards and is told to write on each of these- the four most important possessions, the four most important relationships, the four most important experiences, and the four most important senses. Then you proceed to lose these things. Some you give to the person on your left, some to the person on your right, some are taken from you by these people sitting next to you. Some are losses of choice and others are losses outside your control. Eventually, the last of the squares are gone.
Loss after loss, until all is gone. Many times I’ve watched my patients “letting go” of what in the past was so important, to move into the next experience- dying.
This week I left the home that was a ten-plus year labor of love. Every flower, every rock, each window chosen with care, every surface painstakingly painted in colors chosen for warmth and welcome. A part of me has been depressed and sad, thinking about all the work, not just the house but also the energy spent in establishing relationships and community, being a part of something bigger than just me. And then all the memories… My dog running off, chasing deer into the forest, my kids visiting and enjoying s’mores and campfires, walks in the park with the geese heralding fall, the leaves changing as they are now, to golden and crimson, and the love-hate relationship that I have had with the awe-inspiring chestnut tree (each leaf the size of a small car it seems when having to rake them for at least half a year). All the things I will miss. Losses.
In my current split personality state, a part of me is thrilled with the anticipation and excitement of a new place: Looking out the window and watching the float planes bring commuters to work in the morning; gazing at the space needle as dusk changes to dark, and glittering lights are reflected off the lake; coming home on a quick break in the middle of my work day and eating a sandwich, something I haven’t had an opportunity to do in over 13 years. Gains.
I am realizing all the letting go, the tearful moments, the sense of change and loss, is but a mere fraction of what will be needed some day, when I know I am dying. Not the sense of every day,” this could be my last” but the reality of the daily changes occurring with a terminal illness. What my patients show me at each visit. They show me the reality of losing independence, the reality of lacking the strength to get to the bathroom, the reality of every day, a little more loss, a little less life left.
The anticipation, the dread, the hope, the prayer at the close of this life, that the next step into the unknown is something wonderful. Perhaps this week, I am getting a little practice.