When Flesh and Heart Shall Fail

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(Ten years ago this week, this healthy young college student came to our clinic stricken with seasonal influenza complicated by pneumonia.  His family gave permission for his story to be told.)

 

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Nothing was helping.  Everything had been tried for a week of the most intensive critical care possible.  A twenty year old man, completely healthy only two weeks previously, was dying and nothing could stop it.

The battle against a sudden MRSA pneumonia precipitated by a routine seasonal influenza had been lost.   Despite aggressive hemodynamic, antibiotic, antiviral and ventilator management, he was becoming more hypoxic and his renal function was deteriorating.  He had been unresponsive for most of the week.

The intensivist looked weary and defeated. The nurses were staring at their laps, unable to look up, their eyes tearing. The hospital chaplain reached out to hold this young man’s mother’s shaking hands.

After a week of heroic effort and treatment, there was now clarity about the next step.

Two hours later, a group gathered in the waiting room outside the ICU doors. The average age was about 21; they assisted each other in tying on the gowns over their clothing, distributed gloves and masks. Together, holding each other up, they waited for the signal to gather in his room after the ventilator had been removed and he was breathing without assistance. They entered and gathered around his bed.

He was ravaged by this sudden illness, his strong body beaten and giving up. His breathing was now ragged and irregular, sedation preventing response but not necessarily preventing awareness. He was surrounded by silence as each individual who had known and loved him struggled with the knowledge that this was the final goodbye.

His father approached the head of the bed and put his hands on his boy’s forehead and cheek.  He held this young man’s face tenderly, bowing in silent prayer and then murmuring words of comfort:

It is okay to let go. It is okay to leave us now.
We will see you again. We’ll meet again.
We’ll know where you will be.

His mother stood alongside, rubbing her son’s arms, gazing into his face as he slowly slowly slipped away. His father began humming, indistinguishable notes initially, just low sounds coming from a deep well of anguish and loss.

As the son’s breaths spaced farther apart, his dad’s hummed song became recognizable as the hymn of praise by John Newton, Amazing Grace.  The words started to form around the notes. At first his dad was singing alone, giving this gift to his son as he passed, and then his mom joined in as well. His sisters wept. His friends didn’t know all the words but tried to sing through their tears. The chaplain helped when we stumbled, not knowing if we were getting it right, not ever having done anything like this before.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

When we’ve been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.

And he left us.

His mom hugged each sobbing person there–the young friends, the nurses, the doctors humbled by powerful pathogens. She thanked each one for being present for his death, for their vigil kept through the week in the hospital.

This young man, now lost to this life, had profoundly touched people in a way he could not have ever predicted or expected. His parents’ grief, so gracious and giving to the young people who had never confronted death before, remains unforgettable.

This was their sacred gift to their son so Grace will lead us home.

 

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Go This Way

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We want to reach the kingdom of God,
but we don’t want to travel by way of death.
And yet there stands Necessity saying:
‘This way, please.’
Do not hesitate to go this way,
when this is the way that God came to you.
~ Augustine

 

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We too easily forget;
we are not asked to bear more
than God endured for us.
We follow a well-worn path
bearing the footprints of Him
who has come to lead us home.

 

 

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Let Us Go In

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Let us go in; the fog is rising…
~Emily Dickinson, her last words

 

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I have watched the dying
in their last hours:
often they see what I cannot,
listen to what is beyond my hearing,
stretch their arms overhead
as fingers touch what is beyond my reach.

I watch and wonder what it will be like
to reverse the steps that brought me here
from the fog of amnion.

The mist of living lifts
as we enter a place
unsurpassed in brilliance and clarity;
the mystery of what lies beyond is solved
simply by going in.

 

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Ensanguining the Skies

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How can I feel so warm   
Here in the dead center of January? I can   
Scarcely believe it, and yet I have to, this is   
The only life I have. 
~James Wright from “A Winter Daybreak Above Vence”
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to the northwest

 

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to the north
To-day I shall be strong,
No more shall yield to wrong,
  Shall squander life no more;
Days lost, I know not how,
I shall retrieve them now;
Now I shall keep the vow
  I never kept before.Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
  Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
  Falls the remorseful day.
~A.E. Houseman from “How Clear, How Lovely Bright”
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to the northeast
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to the east
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to the southeast
It was like a church to me.
I entered it on soft foot,
Breath held like a cap in the hand.
It was quiet.
What God there was made himself felt,
Not listened to, in clean colours
That brought a moistening of the eye,
In a movement of the wind over grass.
There were no prayers said. But stillness
Of the heart’s passions — that was praise
Enough; and the mind’s cession
Of its kingdom. I walked on,
Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
And broke on me generously as bread.
~ R.S. Thomas “The Moor”
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to the south

 

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to the southwest

 

Last night, as you can see,  was a surrounding sunset experience – 360 degrees of evolving color and patterns, streaks and swirls, gradation and gradual decline.

It was all in silence.  No bird song, no wind, no spoken prayer.
Yet communion took place with the air breaking and feeding me like manna from heaven.

May I squander life no more and treasure each day.
May I keep my vows to God, church, family, friends, and patients.
May I be warmed on a chill winter day by the witness of such bleeding of last light of day.

 

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to the west

 

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to the west

 

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to the west

 

The Dying of the Year

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Now winter downs the dying of the year,   
And night is all a settlement of snow; 
From the soft street the rooms of houses show   
A gathered light, a shapen atmosphere,   
Like frozen-over lakes whose ice is thin   
And still allows some stirring down within. 
These sudden ends of time must give us pause.   
We fray into the future, rarely wrought 
Save in the tapestries of afterthought. 
More time, more time. Barrages of applause   
Come muffled from a buried radio. 
The New-year bells are wrangling with the snow.
~Richard Wilbur from “Year’s End”
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The melancholy days are come, the saddest of the year,
Of wailing winds, and naked woods, and meadows brown and sear.
Heaped in the hollows of the grove, the autumn leaves lie dead;
They rustle to the eddying gust, and to the rabbit’s tread.
The robin and the wren are flown, and from the shrubs the jay,
And from the wood-top calls the crow through all the gloomy day.
~William Cullen Bryant from “The Death of the Flowers”

 

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These dark, icy,  and sodden days are scarcely recalled while basking in the lightness of June when the sun shines 19 hours a day.

There is no way to cope with such overwhelming darkness except by adding in a few minutes more a day over six months, otherwise the shock of leaving behind the light would be too great.  Howling wind knocks and batters, freezing rain beats mercilessly at the window panes to coat everything with a 1/4 inch of ice,  puddles stand deeper than they appear, mud sucks off boots, leaves are thoroughly shaken from embarrassed branches.

We have no remnant of summer civility and frivolity left; we must adapt or cry trying, only adding to a pervasive sogginess.

Nevertheless, these melancholy days have their usefulness — there are times of joyful respite from frenetic activity while reading, snuggled deep under quilts, safe and warm.  Without such stark contrast, the light and bright time of year would become merely routine, yet just another sunny day.

That never happens here in the Pacific northwest.

We celebrate the emerging light with real thanksgiving and acknowledge this encompassing darkness makes our gratitude more genuine.

We are privileged to live within such a paradox:  there is, after all, a certain gladness in our sadness.

 

 

 

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A Stretching Light

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Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air –
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
A shrill dark music – like the rain pelting the trees – like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds –
A white cross Streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings Like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?
~Mary Oliver from “Swan”

 

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This laboring of ours with all that remains undone,
as if still bound to it,
is like the lumbering gait of the swan.

And then our dying—releasing ourselves
from the very ground on which we stood—
is like the way he hesitantly lowers himself

into the water. It gently receives him,
and, gladly yielding, flows back beneath him,
as wave follows wave,
while he, now wholly serene and sure,
with regal composure,
allows himself to glide.
~Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Swan”

 

And could it be that I too,
awkward and lumbering through my days
may glide and soar when afloat or aloft.Could it be there is beauty hidden away and within
until I change how I look at life,
how I move in the air that I’m given to breathe
and how I am stretched by the Light that illuminates me?
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But now they drift on the still water,   
Mysterious, beautiful;   
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day   
To find they have flown away?
~William Butler Years from “The Wild Swans at Coole”
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The Long Road of Weariness and Want

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The snow is melting
and the village is flooded
     with children.
~Kobayashi Issa (translated by Robert Haas)

 

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A voice is heard in Ramah,
    mourning and great weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.
Matthew 2:18 and Jeremiah 31:15

 

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Rachel weeping – Salvador Dali

 

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font,
But he is with a million displaced people|
On the long road of weariness and want.
For even as we sing our final carol
His family is up and on that road,
Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,
Glancing behind and shouldering their load.

Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower
Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,|
The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,
And death squads spread their curse across the world.
But every Herod dies, and comes alone
To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.
~Malcolm Guite from Waiting on the Word

 

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And the slaughter of innocents and weary road for refugees continues unabated-
In observance of The Feast Day of the Holy Innocents:

 

There is no consolation for the families of those lost:
Their arms ache with emptiness tonight,
beds and pillows lie cold and unused,
blankets and cuddlies await all night hugs
that never come again.

There can be no consolation;
only mourning and great weeping,
sobbing that wrings dry
every human cell,
leaving dust behind,
dust, only dust
which is beginning
and end.

He came to us
for times such as this,
born of
the dust of woman and
the breath of Spirit,
God who bent down to
lie in manger dust,
walk on roads of dust,
die and be laid to rest as dust
in order to conquer
such evil as this
that could displace masses
and massacre innocents.

He became dust to be
like us
He began a mere speck in a womb
like us
so often washed away from life
as unwanted.

His heart beat
like ours
breathing each breath
like ours
until a fearful fallen world
took His
and our breath
away.

He shines through
the shadows of death
to guide our stumbling uncertain feet.
His tender mercies flow freely
when there is no consolation
when there is no comfort.

He hears our cries
as He cried too.
He knows our tears
as He wept too.
He knows our mourning
as He mourned too.
He knows our dying
as He died too.

God wept
as this happened.
Evil comes not from God
yet humankind embraces it.
Sin is a choice
we made from the beginning,
a choice we continue to make.

Only God can glue together
what evil has shattered.
He just asks us to hand Him
the pieces of our broken hearts.

We will know His peace
when He comes
to bring us home,
our tears will finally be dried,
our cells no longer
just dust,
never only dust
as we are glued together
by the breath of God
forevermore.

 

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the tender mercy of our God,
    by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.
Luke 1: 78-79