My Further Up

Yesterday Coco nudged her face into my neck and said, "You smell good. You smell like the beach." Maybe my moisturizer reminded her of suntan lotion, or maybe I smelled like sand or the ocean, whatever the case, it was a compliment of the highest order.

From there she went into a kind of olfactory swoon..."I love the smell of the beach," she said. "And I love the smell of Nanny and Pa's basement...and the Aubuchon Hardware in Shelburne...I walk in there and it smells so good!"

I knew what she meant. There are smells in this world that trigger all kinds of good feelings in me. Boxwood, for one, reminds me of my summers in Kentucky. Good leather, the Christmas tree, a baby's neck, rosemary, New York City. I could spend all day making this list. 

I had a moment of intense motherly pride hearing that three of my daughter's favorite smells are the beach, a basement and a hardware store. So far, so good.

I often wonder what I will miss about this world when I die. If missing things is an option. The pleasure of eating? The smell of mowed grass? The way it feels to hold someone's hand.

I do a lot of hand holding in my hospice work. Lots of times because there isn't much more to do than just being present with another human being.

I still haven't found the right language to describe the hospice situation. I'm the chaplain, but the people I see aren't patients, and I don't like the word client. It's not work. Mostly we are just two, sometimes more, people, spending time together and sorting through the things of this world. Sitting there beside us is a truth called death.

Most of us live with the flawed notion that death is quite far away, when in reality we have no idea when death will present in our lives. 

In hospice time, death sits beside us. Sometimes it's a most unwanted companion, but I find that most of the time death has found a place of acceptance in the hospice room. And sometimes, actually, almost always, death has much to teach. 

This is true of most things we would prefer to avoid in this life. Take a closer look and you will see, nestled in there in the things you tiptoe around and stash in the back of the closet of your life, some of your finest teachers.

I have had people look directly into my eyes and say, "I don't want to die." I have watched people die a long, slow peaceful death over many weeks, their body disappearing a little more each day as their spirit begins to pull away. They speak to unseen visitors and reach for the spoon they once used to stir the soup. I often sit with people whose closest friends and parents and siblings have already died. Those people are always ready and often wonder why they haven't left yet. I tell them there is always a reason. 

One more smell, maybe. Another view of winter into spring, perhaps. A chance to meet one more person, to hold a hand for a while, to share another story.

The hospice journey is often quite miraculous. It is literally time and space carved out of life in which we can acknowledge...death is with us now. My hope is that we do, in those days and months, sometimes years, welcome death and all she has to bring to the feast of life.

Yesterday one of my hospice friends described her situation in a way that was perfect. She is in her 90s and her life has been whittled down to a few pieces of furniture and photographs in a small room in a care facility. Everyone she loved died before her: her siblings, children and husband. Still, she maintains a pleasant demeanor and positive outlook. She is neither angry nor sad. "Everyone is gone," she told me, "I'm not sure why I'm still here. I'm ready, though," she said, without a hint of worry or fear. "I'm ready to meet my...and here she struggled with language, her elegant hand waving in the air in front of her..."I'm ready to meet my...further up."

I am ready to meet my further up. That is a truly beautiful readiness. Amen.