Ways of Seeing: What we leave in our wake matters
For over 10 years I have been enthralled with and driven by the desire to learn about death and dying. While this need was sparked into a flame by the sudden death of my dad, I believe it has been a glowing ember since my first experience with death when I was a child. Depressing, you might say. Morbid, others might say. Crazy, most people think.
Nothing could be farther from the truth, for what has emerged time and again is an overwhelming richness to life, ironically only revealed when facing the end. Yes, all the stories I have witnessed hold pain, anger and loss. But these stories also hold joy, salvation and hope. As these stories are shared, the sacred is revealed. But our eyes must be open, our mind must be free and our hearts must be awake.
I consider three perspectives to look at the meaning in our lives and, therefore, in our deaths. There is the lens of living for today — the idea to savor wherever you happen to be and to “love the one you’re with.” Another lens is planning for tomorrow — dreaming about the future, and “following our bliss.” Both are very crucial perspectives that enable us to be present in the moment as well as prepared for what comes in the future.
But then there is the third lens — looking back to the past.
I used to tell my children, who grew up around quiet boats (canoes, kayaks, sailboats, rowboats), to “watch your wake!” As a boat glides or flies across the water there is a corresponding movement left behind. What did you leave behind that might affect the next to pass by that way? What ripples or tsunamis follow you?
At first it was a simple, practical awareness – Is there a wet towel on the floor? Is there a light left on? Then it needed more thought and intuition – Do I have my backpack? Do I know my phone number? Then it becomes more complex, with greater consequences — Is there a stove heating? Is there a nozzle in the gas tank? Ultimately it needed the sophistication of caring — Did I hear you? Did I respect you?
My mother just turned 92, and all she wanted for her birthday was dinner at home with family and a game of charades. In the “olden days” we spent more time being in each other’s company. In the evenings we would gather to play cards or charades. So in granting her birthday wish we had a blast reminiscing about those nights of creativity and laughter while also creating a new memory to rejuvenate our spirits.
At the end of life, reflecting back — contemplating our wake (no pun intended) — is inherent in the process. What we have left behind can be a source of severe angst or ultimate peace.
In his book, “The Four Things that Matter Most,” Dr. Ira Byock gives us a framework for these reflections in four questions: “Have we said thank you? Have we said forgive me? Have we said I forgive you? Have we said I love you?” In answering these questions, we tell our story, we create our legacy. Companioning others on this passage, honoring just who they are, is a poignant and unforgettable journey.
In my service as a hospice volunteer and chaplain, I follow a practice of taking a moment as I leave a room where a loved one, friend or patient, is at the end of their life, to stop and look back — to watch my wake. For it is in this moment that I might catch the fleeting glimpse of humanity — in all its suffering, fear and regret or equally in all its acceptance, comfort and serenity. This is a moment of stark truth that I believe we as humans — both weary and grateful, who struggle and celebrate — crave deep within our soul.
After this pause, you might continue on your way. You might also turn around and enter again. This is when we open our eyes, free our mind and awaken our heart. This is when we give meaning to our experience. This is when we create a story worth living and telling. This is when we are transformed by the compassion that is innate within us.
Laurie Borden is the program assistant at Hospice Volunteer Services in Middlebury. She also serves as the ARCH (Addison Respite Care Home) community coordinator, as well as on the ARCH board, exploring and creating end-of-life options in Addison County. She lives in Weybridge with her husband, mother and three Bernese mountain dogs.
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