Dear Family and Friends,
Here I am again, though funeral plans are nowhere complete. But I need to share a few things. Somehow, writing these updates clarifies my own thinking, and I simply feel compelled to tell Francis' story. Many of you have also told me these updates are helpful to you, so, lifelong teacher that I am, the desire to pass on what has helped me is in the marrow of my bones.
The tone in our home could seem strange to some! In fact, an old priest-friend of Francis' from Boston (He doesn't use a computer.) used the word "horrible" when I told him over the phone today I would be calling selected friends to our home the moment Francis dies. I want to give Francis one last personal ministry of love by washing his body with the support of close friends. We will weep together our great loss before I release Francis' body to the funeral home personnel for cremation.
Francis and I talk freely about death and I often weep, yet we find consolation in the big picture: "From the beginning until now the entire creation has been groaning in one great act of giving birth." (Romans 8:19-23)
When Francis sleeps his face looks gaunt and colorless. Actually even awake his cheeks look thin. Tuesday morning brought me closer to the ravages of cancer: Learning from the nurses how to use an incontinence pad to help roll Francis from side to side to care for toilet hygiene and change sheets, all the while he's in bed, I felt such anguish seeing his thin arms and skeletal frame, -- as if he were already at death's door! And he could well be because that activity laid him flat in a long period of sleep as happened on Monday after a full morning.
However, by late afternoon when Mike and Margaret/Meg Nobel, two of the selected close friends (They came to our wedding) came just to quietly see him, I told them as they were leaving that Francis and I needed to re-record two short chants Lee and Lynn had recorded on Sunday because they had inadvertently gotten truncated. But, I added, it was obvious Francis had no energy to sing after a full day like this! (I say "obvious" because Margaret saw his weight loss for herself when she helped me with more instructions in checking Francis' bed. A Hospice nurse herself, Margaret teaches Hospice nurses!) In any case I started singing for Mike and Margaret, -- in the kitchen, -- just so they'd hear the beautiful Aramaic Beatitude Francis so loves, the one I hoped, I said, we'd be able to re-record the next day.
Well, -- THEN, as I started singing it -- "Tubwayun layleyn dadkeyn b'lehon..." in the kitchen, we heard Francis singing along in the other room!!! So we quickly went to his bedside. By golly, he WAS ready to sing again! And by golly we ended up recording two takes of that Beatitude and also sang the second short chant -- the gorgeous passage from the biblical Song of Solomon, aka the Song of Songs. As on Sunday we were flabbergasted by Francis' renewed energy, and his strong voice.
The whole while Francis and I sang -- "Set me as a seal upon your heart, for love is as strong as death," we were looking into each other's faces, letting our full voices express that love that is as strong as, -- and even stronger than -- death. Those chants are so clearly soul food for him, for us!
Though for a few days over a week ago Francis hardly ate, and though he drinks much less water than he used to, -- (but he does eat grapefruit and drinks miso "tea" and Meg Wolff's fresh carrot juice,) he's been enticed to eat for several days now by the variety of the macrobiotic approach which includes either blanched veggies or long cooked vegetables (onions taste carmelized!) with various dressings, to the main dish, and even gluten free cookies, (though Susan Christian's ginger cookies are just as good!!)
I told him tonight I think this way of eating is prolonging his life. His reply with a smile, "Likely so!" (This noon he wasn't even going to eat but changed his mind when heheard me Mmmm"ing" over Meg Wolff's minestrone soup!)
Francis still has the upper body strength to lift his buttocks to scoot back on his bed (Meg noticed that with pleasure.) His supporting elbows, however, have begun developing skin breakdown. So we quickly tacked on protective safetac pads as we had to do for the sacrum! Dr. Jim Melloh said tonight when he gave Francis his healing treatment that his pulses were good. His voice is obviously strong, -- so how could he get pneumonia with active singing lungs even if he is in bed all the time? See what I mean? Very full range of emotions!
Two nights ago I picked up a pamphlet from the Hospice packet, called "Gone From My Sight," which includes The Dying Experience by Barbara Karnes. She briefly describes the signs of approaching death, e.g. "Withdrawal" wherein "Words lose their importance; touch and wordlessness take on more meaning." "Decreased food intake" is one of the signs: She explains: "It is okay not to eat. A different kind of energy is needed now. A spiritual energy, not a physical one, will sustain from here on."
The pamphlet ends with this passage --
Gone From My Sight by Henry Van Dyke.
I am standing upon the seashore. A ship, at my side,
spreads her white sails to the moving breeze and starts
for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength.
I stand and watch her until, at length, she hangs like a speck
of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.
Then, someone at my side says, "There, she is gone"
Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast,
hull and spar as she was when she left my side.
And, she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.
Her diminished size is in me -- not in her.
And, just at the moment when someone says, "There, she is gone,"
there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices
ready to take up the glad shout, "Here she comes!"
And that is dying...
Death comes in its own time, in its own way.
Death is as unique as the individual experiencing it.
I've heard this story several times at funerals. Though the imagery can only be imagery, it rings true to my experience because I saw how my own mother's faith helped her cross the threshold from this plane into a new life. She crossed over with the same kind of trust Francis demonstrates, -- both, aware of some mysterious new life awaiting them.
Within view of Francis' hospital bed in this room is a photo of my mother, below which I've placed another framed photo, -- of the famous Poulnabrone dolmen in the Burren, County Clare, Ireland which Francis and I visited earlier in this millennium. The dolmen's open door symbolizes that threshold for me, the one my mother crossed, and the one my darling Francis is approaching. And of course it's the one we're all approaching sooner or later.
Both Meg/Margaret Nobel and Pam Shays told me that hospice nurses call themselves "midwives at the other end." Very fitting, because we're planning to include in the handout for Francis' funeral the passage from the Eucharistic Liturgy we used for my mother's handout: "Life is changed, not taken away."
PS I'm observing that the "Message for Francis" email approach can result in a deeper sharing than might be possible otherwise. Though I may not get to read all of your emails the day they come in, know that I'm keeping at it, and that it's a special time for Francis when I read them.