As I left my bustling children at school today, I crossed a main thoroughfare in Nashville into the Windsor Tower of condominiums, surrounded by blooms of dogwoods, tulips, and newly bursting azaleas. All of this exuberance from kids and spring flowers was in stark juxtaposition to what I knew was about to be the scene in Mary Lou’s room, where Hospice had been set up the day before. And yet, just as with so many dying patients with whom I have visited both in and out of the hospital, I was absolutely certain that I would come away from this ‘house call’ with more personal value gained than imparted.
Mary Lou was laying in her new hospital bed, placed by her dutiful daughter, Vanessa, right in the smack dab middle of the living room, facing her huge “picture” window with a fabulous view of Nashville’s skyline. Blue was all you could see this day. As I turned to Mary Lou, her face was gaunter and her eyes deeper than just two weeks earlier when I had seen her last, and yet there was a peace about her that was instantly evident. Having been diagnosed with colon cancer earlier this year, I had visited her many times and found her to be a bit feisty, in a good way, and not at all willing to “call it quits” just yet. Honestly, it had worried me because I felt that this fatal illness was likely to progress pretty quickly, and I didn’t want to see any lack of resolution of relationships and love shared and so forth. Even more importantly, I didn’t want to see her suffer pain or discomfort because of a resistance to face the realities of dying. Thankfully, nothing could be further from the truth, because Mary Lou and all of those around her have scripted a virtually beautiful story over the past few weeks that warms my heart.
In medicine, we talk much these days about “good death,” and as an ICU physician, I actively seek to orchestrate “good death” for my patients. On the continuum of life, the reality of dying is to me a natural and beautiful part of all of our stories, and one that I firmly believe we should not attempt to delay when the time is obviously at hand. Thus, imagine my thankfulness when I saw the immense amount of acceptance and courage displayed by Mary Lou. Maybe we all wonder if we will have such courage when it is our time. Well, to help impart her own sense of wisdom, Mary Lou took it upon herself to teach us while she still could. And she left Vanessa and me with 3 main messages.
- When discussing the afterlife, Mary Lou said, “I imagine Heaven as a huge kaleidoscope of energy through which we’ll see beauty beyond imagination.” She clearly stated that she considered this day and all remaining for her on Earth as a voyage towards this kaleidoscope and she called it her “next big adventure.” Of this, she was absolutely accepting, and it was beautiful for me to see. None of us knows what Heaven will be like, but we pursue the Kaleidoscope with Faith and the knowledge that it will be a gift not earned and yet abundantly given only through God’s divine mercy if we, the sheep, follow our Good Shepherd.
- Next Mary Lou said, “Without pain there can be no strength.” She was reiterating what so many saints (Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, etc) have said, which is that we should be thankful to receive pain and trials. This brings us closer to an understanding of God. In such trials, we will come to know that He is with us, carrying us in our reliance as it should be every day even in the absence of an immediate trial. Furthermore, in Teresa of Avila’s Mansions of Prayer, she states the Heroic Virtues, which are to say that we (you and I) should approach all trials in the following 5 ways: (1) Easily (2) Promptly (3) Joyously (4) Regardless of difficulty, and (5) Consistently. On this day, Mary Lou’s approach and comments reminded me of these saintly virtues. Her wisdom in this seemed larger than life. I was thankful.
- Lastly, she talked of how much she appreciated the time she’d had with her family. She valued each and every minute over her whole life with her children their families. We discussed how often it is that people fail to appreciate these times and end up with regret. Then Mary Lou whispered her third lesson: “Life is simple, really. It is just Love. It all revolves around Love. People make themselves miserable with the seven deadly sins instead. Please remember that.” I thought of them: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. I prayed then, as now, for discernment to avoid these and presence of mind to turn to Jesus as my light away from these ever present traps. And the words “Jesus must increase, I must decrease” (St. John the Baptist) echoed in my mind.
Then she stopped. Looked at me, then at Vanessa, and tears flowed out of her eyes. These, though, were tears of days well lived, lessons learned, and thankfulness for having completed her journey. It was obvious that in the final synthesis of her life, Mary Lou had soared right past all of the things that weigh one down (schedules, worries, regrets, pettiness). She was completely focused on the main point, which was Love from God to us and from us to each other. The Kaleidoscope was in view, and who would want to delay that voyage when you’ve prepared so well for the journey? Not Mary Lou!
Ad majorem Dei gloriam (AMDG, for the greater glory of God),