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“They want us to wear masks when we see patients—as a precaution,” she said, her brown eyes warming as she pulled open the screen door and stepped inside. It was Kassie, the nurse practitioner, come to evaluate my continued participation in hospice, per the Medicare guidelines. She had called earlier. “I’m glad to meet you, Liz. Alice tells me how well you’re doing—you lead the way.”

Still dizzy from the nebulizer treatment, I took slow deliberate steps supported by my cane toward the dining room table and sat down. Instead of a computer, Kassie withdrew a yellow pad from her case, began questioning my symptoms, then added them to the penciled notes she’d taken from my chart. “Now, let me listen to your lungs—Yes, lots of crackles as I suspected—still yellow when you cough it up?” I nodded, covering my mouth and leaned back in my chair.

“And no change in the measurement of your arm since last time,” she added collapsing the tape measure with slim fingers. “Still 19—from my findings, Liz, you’re still eligible for hospice.” I breathed easier, glad for Alice’s and Eunice’s guidance.

As Kassie prepared to leave, she appeared serene in her blue scrubs, unmoved by the pandemic’s challenges. “Yes, since my husband’s also an essential worker, we’re taking turns homeschooling our nine year old. Our five year old’s still in the hospital’s day care with most of his friends.” Her brown eyes smiled as she spoke, her thick brunette hair swept up into a bun enhancing her loveliness. “And last night, it was such fun making supper in the kitchen. That’s never happened before. I’m sure we’ll do it again.”

Her spirit’s flexibility touched mine.

 

Hands enhance life’s experiences: dimpled hands of a toddler mouthing everything within reach, sinewy hands of a laborer plying his trade, willowy hands of a dancer enhancing her art, knowing hands of a father responding to his children.

Other hands are set aside for matters of spirit: those of the Jesuit priest James Keegan come to mind. Decades of holding the Body and Blood of Christ during Mass, of holding others’ torments, of holding words until matured into images, of holding spiritual directors under his care, of holding his God in the face of debilitating illness that culminated in his death—all marked his scarred hands with an uncanny beauty.

Its reflection is found in These Hands (2017), the slim volume of his poems drawn from the crucible of his lifelong humble service. Nothing escaped his attention: seascapes, seasons, people, animals, death, even his Parkinson disease. His chaste spirit foraged for precise words until the sought-for image burst into consciousness, imbued with humor and compassion. Within each poem shimmers an intimacy toward something larger than life. He, too, played with words during his final days, sourced by his Creator. Such fired his imagination and now surprises his readers with “Ah!” The book’s cover suggests this response.

Keegan’s concluding poem, And Give Our Best to Uncle, contains such a moment: “Before my teeth fall out/ and more joints start to click/ like a metronome collecting silence,/ I want to say, ‘I love you,’ once/ and have it understood/ the way the mirror/ understands my face.”

 Such a relationship he had with his God…

 

“Beauty does not linger, it only visits. Yet beauty’s visitation affects us and invites us into its rhythm, it calls us to feel, think, and act beautifully in the world: to create and live a life that awakens the Beautiful.” So writes John O’Donohue (1956 -2008), Irish poet, Hegelian philosopher, and lecturer who sets my spirit a-shivering.

The lakes and mountains of Connemara, West Galway, imbued Donohue’s fluid aesthetics with rich dynamism, order, and harmony. From his stonemason father and Uncle Pete he learned the beauty of spirit and work. Widely read for decades, he culled insights of beauty from classical and contemporary poets and writers and psychologists and braided them into his personal sense of beauty.

In 2004 he published The Invisible Embrace – Beauty, essays articulating this amalgam, now his own; its ninth chapter, “The White Shadow: Beauty and Death,” seized my interest. Given the Creator’s affection for all that is, superimposing the lens of beauty over the underbelly of life reveals a different milieu: pathos. What seems weak, exhausted, broken, stunted, and breathless, is much more.

Such truth scrapes barnacles from doubt’s poison, catapults despair’s insanity, illumines the dying process with hope, and releases headwinds of change—inherent within this new direction is its own intimacy with Beauty who O’Donohue identifies with the mystery of God. Such finding evidences his compassionate listening to the terminally ill and resonates deeply within my psyche.

My study and waiting continues. Happily, I have another companion in John O’Donohue who made his crossing during sleep while vacationing in Avignon, France. So simple … just like his life was among us.

 

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