[“Felled,” Cave Hill Cemetery, Louisville, KY]
Every year just before Halloween all the students in my (Unitarian) Sunday School class would each be handed a half-pint-sized orange carton and earnestly urged to collect money for UNICEF. And I always did (I took the offered candy, too), spurred on by my Sunday School teachers and my parents but most tellingly, by a UNICEF promotional movie. Sixty-five or so years later, I remember the dark-skinned, hollow-eyed, big-bellied children on the screen as a sonorous voice explained, “In the time you count to ten, someone in the world will have died of”—What? I no longer remember. Malaria, perhaps. I’m not sure. I am sure that sometimes on the bus on the way to my piano lesson or just before falling asleep, at times when quiet and alone, I silently counted to ten and, as I have come to say, held the unknown, unseen, out-there-somewhere person who had just died “in the Light”: a frisson, a self-induced horror; a moment.
People die. We all die. I’ve understood this since I was five. (As I write this, someone in India dies from horrific heat.) And yet on Friday sitting beside the nursing home bed of a dear friend who’s ready to die, I wanted to jump up and scream: “Hey, you! Yeah, you! You In the next room having such a great time playing Bingo. Do you understand? ATTENTION MUST BE PAID! Yes, [my friend’s] lived a long and rich and fulfilling life. Yes, she’s ready. But how ’bout some reverence, huh?
“Or how ’bout you two? Yeah, you! Standing on the other side of this cloth divider? Think you could whisper as you change that woman’s bandage? Would that be possible?”
I didn’t, of course. For my friend was deeply, profoundly asleep; the two nurses companionably working inches away and the delighted shrieks and outbursts from the next room and, yes, my fretting presence, were of as much concern to her as the discarded Kleenex under her bed.
So I sat and contemplated, I practiced as best I could both Letting Go Of It All and the Intensely and Reverently Holding On/Cherishing It All, this beautifully banal thing called Life, yes, even that shadowed Kleenex—but especially, of course, the life, the soul, The Light of the amazing woman, “my spiritual mother,” whose breath slowly and rhythmically raised and lowered her blue-print hospital johnny.
“Trust the process,” she instructed me.