30th July 2000 – A Brush with death.

When I was asked to do this service today I already knew what I would talk about. This was true, even though I said to myself after the last time up here, that it would be a very long time before I would stand here again. Life is very odd isn’t it? I knew because of Winnie.
Winnie is dead. She died earlier this month. I knew Winnie for just 6 weeks, her daughter, with Winnie’s agreement had asked me to be involved as a Reiki practitioner. As usual I was the point of last resort.

Winnie was old. She had had a full active life, but since last summer had suffered from the progressive degenerative condition. When I first met Winnie she was in inner turmoil, her condition having progressed so that she could only speak and partially move her head. She was finding breathing increasingly difficult. She had no other control and her hands were locked solid, fingers turned in and the growing nails cutting the palms.

Her passing was, frankly, not unexpected, so what was it about Winnie’s death that I knew that I would talk about it here. Well, it was the manner of her death, linked to other things that prompted me to feel that here, in her death, was something to be learned something that I was meant to learn, something worth passing on.

What were these things, other than Winnie’s death that caught my attention enough to respond to them. Thoughts, like daydreams and muses are always passing through my awareness yet certain poems seemed increasingly to show themselves as fragments, the odd phrase, a line, and the ideas inherent behind certain poems. There was nothing unusual about the poems and every one of them was one that I use with my Special Needs children as a discussion starter or just to experience. I am a believer in the importance and value of language, even beyond the apparent ability level. I am frequently surprised by the quality of response from my pupils – but that is not why I am up here today! I do get such poem fragments from time to time floating through my brain, that seems normal. But poetry doesn’t normally bombard me. Nor do the books that contain these poems, which I haven’t used for at least 2 years, at home, seem to attract my attention from among the hundreds of similar books on the shelves at home. By itself I would have ignored this and said that it was because I was working with Winnie that was causing my brain to dig out related thoughts etc.

My church had a ‘Treasured Memory’ coffee morning earlier this month. I knew beforehand that I would choose one of Mother’s letters but not which one. Out of 4 full, lever arch files that contain these letters, the 1st file that I opened at random opened at the beginning of the letter that I read earlier. This letter was to the man who would eventually become my father, concerning the death of his first wife. A coincidence? My life is full of coincidence.

Just this last Monday a friend lent me a book and suggested a particular passage as being suitable for this service. Yes she knew it would be about death but not what slant I would take.
Her offering fitted exactly with my thoughts framed prior to day. Another coincidence and one that I will share with you later.

After a long preamble, what is it that I have learned? Let’s take things in order. 1st the poetry, then my experiences with Winnie and finally my friend’s offering.

Language, any language is difficult, full of contradictions, slippery concepts that change with spacing, punctuation and word grouping but more often responding to prior experience of the reader/listener. It is for this reason that as I have become older I have been drawn more and more to poetry. Two simple modern examples are “Private? No!” by Willard R. Espy and then “London Airport” by Christopher Logue.

I like poetry and I am going to share, with you, the poems that my thought fragments came from. It doesn’t really matter what meaning anyone else says that they have but what it means to me based on my own experience of life, intellectual and emotional.

Horace, who died in 8BC wrote in Odes, book 3, verse 29:-

Happy the man, and happy he alone,
He who can call today his own:
He who, secure within, can say,
Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today.
Be fair or foul or rain or shine
The joys I have possessed, in spite of fate, are mine.
Not Heaven itself upon the past has power,
But what has been, has been, and I have had my hour.
Like the Lao – Tzu poem “All things pass”, as a view of death it seems, not wrongful but limited.
They deal with life on the basis of here, I’ve done this or that and life moves on. Which of course it does and it ends, which of course it does. All things do pass. It is just a reminder of the inevitable.

Roger McGough wrote “Let me Die a Young Man’s Death” This is a young persons response to death. Let it be quick. Let it be a long way off. Very understandable but like the previous two poems does not deal with death, the issue or the event in any real way. This is like Mothers “Pull yourself together” advice , but it doesn’t deal with the issue.
Though in fairness that was not all that she said which was of value as there were all sorts of undercurrents of real meaningful support. In a sense these passages are a rejection of death.

Poetry is full of authors’ responses to death. Death in war. Death of friends. Death of relatives but perhaps it is the poetry that has been written when the poet knows that they are dieing that is most useful to my experience of Winnie They include Christine Rossetti “Remember” who died in 1894; Raymond Carver “Fragment”, who died in 1998; Sasha Moorson “Body” who died in 1993; Juan Ramone Jimenez “I Am Not I”.who died in 1958 and an unknown poet. This last “Do not stand At My Grave and Weep” came, I understand, to light in a sealed envelope left on his dresser prior to starting a tour of duty in Northern Ireland in which he died. This young soldier died in 1994.

Christina Rosetti in “Remember” has recognised, if not having totally accepted, the inevitable, but was concerned for those left behind. This concern for those remaining seems to me to be the real driving thrust of her thoughts, rather than the dieing.

In Late “Fragment”, Raymond Carver has a turned inwards to reflect on life. Asking and observing. What have I really got out of life? What have I learned?
What has been really important?

Sash Moorson’s “Body” recognises the beginning of, at least, an intellectual separation of the self and body. That perhaps the ills of the body don’t matter after all as there is something else more important.

This recognition of and separation of the essential self from the body is continued in Juan Ramone Jimenez’ “I Am Not I”.

Steven Cummins’ message “Do not stand At My Grave and Weep” to his parents before he was killed in 1994 takes the idea of the separate self to be a continuing self – the immortal self. In a sense this poem turns full circle suggesting that this last idea should be of comfort to those left behind.

These poems , in my mind form a progression, a development of thought.
First is the ‘Rejection’ the closing of the mind to the inevitable outcome. This is followed by the ‘Concern’ not so much for self but for others who are close who are to be left behind. After that is the ‘Purpose’ the encapsulated idea that there is a purpose to life, something to experience, something to learn. Coming next is the ‘Separation’ of self from body, perhaps initially as an intellectual or emotional recognition of the forthcoming reality. Finally the ‘Immortality’ that there is no end to self, just a moving on.

Winnie is dead and I was privileged to be with her enough to begin to understand, in however a limited way, what death is. I had not understood anything really of my fathers death in 1952. I was only 7. Though it did effect me. Before this point I was a normal child with the normal childhood illnesses of childhood. After, I was an asthmatic with interrupted schooling from that time on. Obviously a physical/psychological response but one of which I have little understanding, for I have no memories of my father.

Mothers death in 1987 left me feeling relieved, for her as well as myself. Her condition had robbed her if the ability to communicate. Her continued frustration was quite obvious. Her death did not really make me sad, though I felt a sense of loss – a place inside that had become empty. To some extent this feeling is repeated even now when I think of her. Is this the ‘selfish side of death’, the side that concentrates on how it effects me, that Mother’s letter refers to. Well … I don’t know. I only know what I feel.

So what of Winnie? When first I met her, she wanted the miracle cure – to walk again. She was in inner turmoil, trying to cope with the indignity of no control over her own body. Her daughter was also finding it very difficult to cope with as well.
Winnie was in a state of rejection.
A closing of the mind to what was likely to be the inevitable. By the end of my second week she was showing a concern, not for herself but for her daughter. At this point I was spending time with both Winnie and her daughter. Her condition also began to improve with easier breathing and hands more relaxed. The fourth week saw Winnie confidently, though weakly taking with her daughter about her life. Trying in her own way to help her daughter. By this time she knew what she really wanted though by now there were periods when all of her body relaxed. Winnie no longer wanted the miracle cure, but to move on, to follow her husband who had died 18 months earlier. The change in Winnie, the sense of peace, was quite noticeable and still she was trying to make it easier for her daughter. How do I know? Well, I asked her, when her daughter was not there. The next visit, a week later she had begun the separation of self from body. No matter the twitching, the quiet moans or irregular breath, that only seemed to be the body, not Winnie. As I left at the end of my session, Winnie mouthed thank you. It was enough. Her daughter never saw it. But I knew. Winnie died 5 minutes before my next session. She went peacefully. I came away, for I felt that my place was not there.
I had done what I had to do. I had helped in the healing process necessary for a quiet, peaceful death. A passing on. I was not sad but happy.

With this experience Winnie has taught me about the process of dying and I now have a better understanding of the term healing.

My friend’s offering to me. Let me read it to you. It comes from a book called ‘Handle with Prayer’ by Alan Cohen. Page 175 is headed Truth and Appearances …

“I had the pleasure of meeting Albert Aguas, a handsome Brazilian shaman with the gift of healing. I saw Alberto lay hands on several patients, to the accompaniment of classical music. I felt honoured to watch this dedicated healer move intuitively, his hands and entire body guided by some unseen yet obvious force.

During class, Alberto told us, “I performed two of my most powerful healings on patients who passed on not long afterward.”
“How can that be?” a student asked.
“The purpose of healing is not necessarily to bring about a certain physical condition,” Alberto explained. “Sometimes its purpose is to bring a soul to peace. The patients I have just described had, on a deeper level, chosen to leave this world. In the process they needed to find resolution and freedom within themselves. I can tell when a patient receives healing; I experience a kind of psychic ‘clicking’ during which tumblers fall into place. I felt that sense of deep resolution with these patients; the fact that they passed on is secondary to the fact that they found inner peace.”

The clicking of psychic tumblers I am not sure of but the inner peace I have seen.

Thank you.