Safe Journey


It’s a gift to share someone’s journey towards death.

I was sitting outside eating a piece of toast at around 2:00 this morning.

The night is a private place. A current of air passed my cheek like a breath. The moisture falling through the trees touched my skin and hair. I sat in the sentient darkness, and I could hear the distant, restless murmur of the sea. The night was so still I could almost feel the beating of its heart.

Then I began to pick up other night sounds. A shuffling of feathers as a bird wakened briefly and settled itself again. A fruit bat snapping up the moths fluttering at the curtained window where I’d left the bedroom light on. Something rustled in the underbrush. Probably a raccoon eating the orange I’d cut up and put on a log by the compost.

IMG_2448-1I looked up and saw the moon through a break in the trees. I thought about a friend who is waiting for an operation, and another friend who is dying.

I said goodbye to John yesterday. This morning he was transferred to a palliative care facility on the mainland. As I walked over to his house, I prayed that I would find the right words to say.

He was sleeping when I got there. I spent a couple of hours with him while he dozed. When he woke, he was immediately lucid. We talked, mostly about old movies and books, and he’d come up with a title or the name of a character while I was still groping around in what passes for my long-term memory.

IMG_9728-Edit-1His physical form is a shell, paper thin and almost translucent. It reminds me of my grandmother’s teacups that came from China. They are called bodiless ware or eggshell porcelain, and if you hold them up to the light, you can see through them.

Most of the time, John hovers between waking and sleeping. I see no signs of pain or struggle in his face. He lingers peacefully in that tenuous borderland where birth and death are scarcely a breath apart. Not a place of darkness but of light and continuous, joyous renewal.

It’s a gift to share someone’s journey towards death. To watch them move closer to the Source where all life begins and to which it returns. In the presence of such great mystery, I am filled with something that’s close to reverence.

John asks if I brought him a smoothie, and I take it out of the fridge. He wants to know what kind it is, and I tell him to guess.

He savours it with closed eyes imitating an oenologist. “Strawberry-mango,” he says.

“Bingo!” He never gets it wrong.

He tells me he wants chocolate in the next one. “Chocolate with raspberries.”

I promise him a chocolate-raspberry smoothie that there won’t be time to make. The ambulance is picking him up first thing in the morning.

I hear a car in the driveway. It’s time to say goodbye. I was hoping to come up with something deep and illuminating. “I love you,” I say, and it sounds about right.

“Love you,” John replies, and the thing has completed itself.

In the end, it’s love that matters. It’s what the Universe is made of and why we are here. To love and be loved. Without that, your net worth doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.

IMG_0233-1I kiss John’s forehead and whisper, “Safe journey.” He closes his eyes and smiles. I let go of his hand.

Walking home, I hear an osprey circling overhead. I hope that John can hear it too.


Morning Pasture

I want to say to God, is this your idea of a plan, because it sucks.

We are told that God has a plan. I have a plan too, and mine’s better.

My plan is that my friend John won’t die.

This time last year he and his wife were in Tuscany. I imagine them driving through the hilly countryside with red poppies growing in the ditches beside the road, and wild iris in bloom between the rows of olive trees.

Last winter John caught the flu, which turned into pneumonia. He couldn’t shake it off. He continued to have difficulty breathing, and in January he was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis.

By the end of March, the smallest effort exhausts him. He is skeletal. When I put my arms around him, I’m afraid something will break. He has no future beyond the next breath.

Just about everything is wrong with this. I want to say to God, is this your idea of a plan, because it sucks. I suggest a few alternatives such as people not getting sick in the first place. Or only hateful people getting sick.

John’s body shrinks. I take his hand, and it is nearly weightless. It reminds me of picking up a bird that’s hit the window. I am surprised by its warmth. His bones are so fragile. I can see the joints of fingers, hand, and wrist, and all the intricate connections beneath the skin. The beauty of it takes my breath away.

There’s a fierce vitality in his eyes as if his life force is concentrated in two points of light. Soul-light. Reaching through him, spreading radiance. It’s travelled light years.

IMG_4372-1Meanwhile, my nectarine tree sheds pink blossoms on the windowsill. A goldfinch embroiders the air with song. Meanwhile, hepaticas open. Diane helps her lambs to get born. A friend’s cancer has stopped growing, and John is still breathing. It’s enough.

Everywhere there is mercy. He is hooked up to an oxygen generator.

The community quietly forms a network of love around him. A neighbour chops wood every day and fills the log cradle next to the stove. Someone prunes the apple trees, hangs a door, does the shopping. People bring food.

For now we do whatever can be done with love, and soup, and chocolate. We listen with our hearts. John talks about getting better. We don’t look away.

We take him books. When he can’t hold them up anymore, we will go and read to him. We’ll tell him whose baby has started walking and who’s bought a new truck. Who has left the island, who has come back. What the price of gas is. There’s a new cook at the pub.

Meanwhile, we sit with him and watch him leaving us with every breath. His lungs are matted with fibroids. We sit with our grief and discomfort, and our desire to run away from this, just to reassure ourselves that we are still alive.

But we don’t because this isn’t about us and our common human aversion to being confronted with sickness and death. This isn’t even about sickness and death. It’s about love. So much of it is getting passed back and forth, it’s like fairy dust, bright particles suspended in the air.

It touches all of us in our net of magic that we’ve woven Brown Cowaround our friend. Some of it escapes and drifts away. It’s carried on the wind and the backs of birds. Over trees, across fields and fences until it settles on other people, and possibly sheep and cows.

We love, we grieve, and we agree to be broken. Somehow we are made better by this.
Maybe that was the plan.