05 March 2009

The distillation phase

Well, life is unfolding, enfolding in its own funny way.

When I'm not writing and working on projects, I'm thinking of my friend. This is the week after my dear mother flew back to her home in the west, with her two fluffy cats and housemate and the third cat (who used to be her cat but now belongs to her housemate--the immediate change following the transaction was quite astonishing to all). This week I have been catching up on some work I've promised others. But this week also has been a lesson in trusting that things would unfold as they needed to for my friend. And indeed, her life is looking different every day, not simply declining in quality as might be expected.

It took my mother saying during her visit that my friend was dying for me to really get it, that she just wasn't expected to live much longer. Then she had a stroke, on the last day of the film fest (her son had been working the event), the day after my mom had gone over to visit and give her a massage. We are both grateful that my mother got to be with her friend before and after the stroke. Over the next few days, we had urgent conversations with family and the professionals in her midst, and those conversations raised about a million questions that we quickly realized we were in no position to address. Many of those conversations are still continuing today.

But like I said, things aren't all bad. Yesterday I felt privileged to be a fly on the wall (there were a couple of us, actually) when the hospice people came. Apparently some folks had come when my friend was still in the hospital, affiliated with a different hospice organization, and they hadn't been so wonderful. These people, however, had gone out of their way to facilitate my friend's admission into Medicare and were helping her sort out her income issues immediately so she could qualify for services instead of draining family members' bank accounts (although one of them is paying for the hospice and is making sure her mortgage is paid up and her utilities paid). And the paperwork expert could be forgiven for saying the name of the form a few too many times in front of my exhausted friend, for whom numbers and letters are still challenging, because she explained how they take all their direction from the family and from her doctor. "We enfold you. We aren't here to tell you what to do or how to do it. If your needs change, we change with you."

It was a beautiful thing to see these people in a position to give help giving the help that mattered the most right when it was needed the most. It was like being at a birth; it also felt like witnessing a phase of death. The stroke might have been part of that process, and the hospice phase began yesterday. Just writing that makes me weepy again.

When my friend tired of the talk whizzing past she retired to her bed again. I came in after a while with a jar of my mother's lotion that she started making for my daughter's beautiful brown skin to keep it from being ashy. I gave her the jar and scooped a little out, melting it in my hands. I massaged her feet, because she seems very isolated and detached touch-wise right now, and her feet are clearly not getting the attention they deserve. I don't know that she's had many foot massages in her life. She was able to tell me how she is enjoying how her hands are finally softening after years of manual labor.

So I show her pictures on my camera of the crocuses she is too exhausted to walk out and see very often, remembering how she cried when she first learned she might not see this spring. I'll go back shortly and cook and massage and just be there for her and her family for a couple of hours so her people can go do their work and live their lives. And the hospice people are coming and the therapists are coming and she can still ride in the car now and again for a short trip (but gets tired easily, and mixed up about where she is).

This is a process; up close, death doesn't seem so final at all (except for that last moment when "the soul flies out" that I felt when our kitty Sophie died). A death keeps unfolding, yet the person -- perhaps the soul -- keeps going. On and on, on and on. And as my friend goes on into her good night her life may be shrinking, her world winnowed down to its barest essentials: food, love, pets, places to rest. Yet her life is also intensifying, as her disease distills her into some pure essence of love and light and life that is as fresh and new and rich as oil pressed from olives only a moment ago.

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