Visit the sick, and you will heal yourself.
The ill person may be a Sufi master,
And your kindness will be repaid in wisdom.
Even if the sick person is your enemy,
You will still benefit,
For kindness has the power to transform
Sworn enemies into firm friends.
And if there is no healing of bad feeling,
There certainly will be less ill will,
Because kindness is the greatest of all balms.
(Rumi, of course)
I spend a significant chunk of my time each week in hospitals. Some of the people I visit are going to die soon and know it, some don’t know they are dying or are denying it, and some are like the rest of us- dying eventually but stopping for a moment to have a baby, get a knee replaced, or unclog some arteries.
I always touch when I’m visiting there, much more than I do with a healthy person on the street or in the office. Hands, cheeks, shoulders, and a kiss on the forehead- I want the person in the bed to remember that not all touches are demands to roll over, expose the vein in your right arm, or a dreamy prelude to “Wake up!” I’m human, though, and sometimes it’s hard to touch, and especially to kiss, but the other person is human, too, so touching always wins.
There are also times when I want to cry, and a few times with those who know they are dying, and who know that I know, that I’ve gone ahead and wept. Why be falsely brave? These are persons who have affected me as a person, and not only as a pastor, and I will miss them. There are some points, with some people, when I must say “screw the professionalism,” and simply be me. I think it’s probably better to be leaving knowing beyond any possible doubt that you are loved and will be missed, than not.
Sometimes people show me sutures, wounds, and rashes that I don’t want to see. I guess they think preachers have a supernatural ability to not be aghast at some sights, so I steel myself for those potential moments. Only once did I purposefully foil the possibility: when I sensed one young first-time mother was about to show me her episiotomy, I rushed to the head of her bed where that would have been impossible.
I have learned much, so much though, from those who know they will not leave that bed they are in alive. Almost always, there is acceptance, and that acceptance is not always dependent on the intensity of their spirituality, or the complexities of their belief in an after-life. It has much more to do with “the things of the earth, growing strangely dim.” Regrets, guilt, hope, wishes- all of those things we who are healthy and sure we have unlimited days ahead of us in which to suffer or realize, become liberatingly irrelevant. Masks fall. The past and the future become the abstractions they actually are. Serenity moves in.
It is one of the greatest moments in another’s life, and to be able to witness that time of what may be never-before-realized freedom is a gift. In the end, again- for most people- death is not fearsome enemy they had spent their lives, to one degree or another, fearing. Sister Death, St.Francis called her; she is a vital and necessary part of Life.