As Death Approaches, Why Not Have Some Fun?

I’m an 87-year-old retired therapist. I have terminal cancer and I’m in assisted living – but my  appetite is humongous and I am as active as I can be. What better time, I figure, for a little fun in life?

Every day, I take slow walks around the assisted living center with the aid of my walker. During those perambulations I’ve announced to everyone, in no uncertain terms, that I am the Inspector General – and they better behave themselves!

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What can I say? I am an equal opportunity harasser. Gently and humorously harassing people is my #1 mission, and these people let me get away with all my silly goofiness. I am making friends with the other residents, even though it is hard to communicate with most of them due to their dementia or physical illness.

I’ve become quite interested to see where they are in their stage of life and how far they live in the past, and I try to communicate with them according to where they are. In my professional life as a therapist, I had never dealt with people afflicted by dementia, and now I have the chance of learning about it by being with them. It is sad to see how much they have changed or regressed, but it is also sort of delightful to hear their stories, so to speak, and their delusions. They are really nice people and it is obvious that many have college degrees and some of them were teachers, writers, and so on. I am trying to develop friendships with everyone, even with those who are non-responsive due to dementia, by saying hi and making contact with them, even physically by gently touching and caressing the backs of their hands. 

A couple of nights ago a light bulb turned on in my mind. It was late in the evening and I was taking my usual walk, talking and joking with the staff and harassing everyone, as is my usual habit. Suddenly, I realized, I love this place – I love the staff and I love the residents. 

It struck me that I am the one who benefits from these actions the most – as the Baha’i teachings point out, exemplified by this passage from a speech Abdu’l-Baha gave in Maine in 1912:

Baha’u’llah has proclaimed the promise of the oneness of humanity. Therefore, we must exercise the utmost love toward each other. We must be loving to all the people of the world. We must … know and recognize all as the servants of the one God. … the sick man is not to be hated because he is sick, the child must not be shunned because he is a child, the ignorant one is not to be despised because he lacks knowledge. They must all be treated, educated, trained and assisted in love. Everything must be done in order that humanity may live under the shadow of God in the utmost security, enjoying happiness in its highest degree.

I am personally experiencing, firsthand, that I can be happy in the highest degree no matter my circumstance. I have come to love these people, and I know that some of the ones who take care of me really love me – or at least offer loving actions. So I feel the blessings of God and at this point of my life, I want to be nowhere besides here – except in the spiritual kingdom, when God decides when and where that will be. One of the reasons for my happiness is this wonderful opportunity to transmit and teach others the love of God. It makes me so happy it is almost intoxicating.

But oh, please, do not put a halo around my head! I confess that I do miss, at times, the joys of my prior existence – but that all seems really petty now, in comparison to the spiritual blessings the Lord showers upon me continuously.

I want to enjoy those blessings, so I’m working hard on being present in the present, without anticipatory anxiety over possible future cancer pain experiences. But sometimes and for a moment I give in to my idle fancies and vain imaginations – then I have to remember that I am not Ms. God. I know absolutely nothing about what will happen before my next breath, or after it, so I work at being grounded right here and right now, and in expressing love to those around me. What else do we have?

Last week we had a celebration here at the nursing home, and the staff did their very best to provide entertainment for all of us – they really worked hard on it. The celebration lasted for several days, and the last day ended with taking every resident’s photo individually. Ice cream was served, and the residents eagerly waited for their ice cream. I observed something interesting – that the world of the residents became so small that there was a collective concentration on getting that ice cream. I, too, became part of this collective concentration. Isn’t it interesting and amazing that one can be content with such small blessing or reward? The point is that our focus can shrink so much that a scoop of ice cream becomes the center of our existence.

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At the moment of that realization, conflicting feelings took over for me. On the one hand, I felt very little and unimportant, one of “those people” who I should not have judged when I entered assisted living – and  on the other hand, maybe I felt, this is the natural stage of the ongoing disintegration of the ego, of my illusory importance as a professional person who has now become an elderly human being.

For a few days after all this I had feelings of depression and grief, along with heightened anxiety. It got to the point of not wanting to eat, not having my usual daily walk, and staying in bed. I felt sorrow and sadness as well as resignation to the natural phenomenon of aging and impending death.

Now, though, I’ve recovered from that depression. I am relearning , or being confirmed in my knowledge that I cannot be sure about anything, whether positive or negative, and that includes the stability of my moods. The only thing I am absolutely certain of is that God loves me and will carry me, always. One of the things that sustains me in my struggle is this comforting prayer attributed to Abdu’l-Baha:

O God! Refresh and gladden my spirit. Purify my heart.  Illumine my powers. I lay all my affairs in Thy hand. Thou art my Guide and my Refuge. I will no longer be sorrowful and grieved; I will be a happy and joyful being. O God! I will no longer be full of anxiety, nor will I let trouble harass me. I will not dwell on the unpleasant things of life.

     O God! Thou art more friend to me than I am to myself. I dedicate myself to Thee, O Lord.

When I say this prayer I feel so much affinity with the other residents here, both in the Special Care section – which means in need of partial care such as myself – and also in the full-time nursing home section, where the individuals are bed-ridden. They all are becoming my people. I know their faces, and this affinity extends to the staffs and the administration, who I so appreciate. Those who dedicate their lives to taking care of others are earthly angels.

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I can see the sadness in the faces and tone of the staff when a resident dies. One of the staffers told me that when a resident passes away, she feels part of her dies, too. Many of these patients have been here for long while, and both the staff and the patients have developed some sort of a bond – and the bond is broken with the passing of the residents. So I am wondering, when that happens in my journey, would they also feel sad? 

I do hope that they will remember the Inspector General with fond memories, and know how much I love them. I hope you will, too.

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