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At 6:00 A. M., I awoke with this dream:

On Sunday morning, the director of nursing says she is understaffed in her home, nearby, and asks me to volunteer, sight unseen. I disregard my plans and hurriedly put on my new white uniform, white hose, and tie shoes and set out. As I pull open the door of the women’s ward, the stench from urine and bowel almost causes me to retch. Rumpled sheets from iron-frame beds lay in tangled knots on the sticky floor. None of the women have had morning care and shuffle around, some of their gowns unfastened in the back. Listless and uncaring, aides stack trays for lunch. The nurses’ desk is empty. I’m appalled and don’t know what to do.

This dream suggests significant regression in my psyche: the director of nursing manipulates me to help her in her home, despite my spending Sunday mornings in prayer and reflection that better serve my needs.

This lack of decision-making is a behavior pattern that dominated my formative years, one that still surfaces: this time likely provoked by pushing myself to complete the daily routine I set for myself; as if its completion will slow down the diminishment of the pesky symptoms of my terminal illness—the diminishment is happening anyway.   

In the dream, the alacrity with which I put on my new white uniform, white hose, and tie shoes suggests an opportunity for which I had been waiting all my life. In reality, that nurse’s uniform duplicates the one I had worn as a seventeen-year-old aide, though a bit snug around the waist, in a fan-cooled hospital.

And the mayhem in the women’s ward reflects the piecemeal handling of the anxiety of my mortality, beneath the surface of my consciousness. Among them circulate many directors of nursing waiting for moments to interject the “shoulds coupled to obsessive thinking and indecision.”

Deeper discernment is needed, and for that I call upon God for proper direction. Time is short. I’ve little time to spend in bedlams.

Green Wheat Fields (1890), an oil-on-canvas rendering by the Dutch Vincent Van Gogh has inspired me, this month’s offering from my kitchen calendar; it is one of many wheat fields that Van Gogh painted during his short life, the later ones reflecting his revolutionary use of color, brushstrokes loaded with thick pigments, and the dynamic in-breaking of life into the ordinary. The viewer cannot not be involved.

Van Gogh’s lifelong obsession was to use his painting as a vehicle to unite the world of sense data, his spirituality, and his evolving art. To approach this monumental task, he relied upon the direction he received from his unconscious. So fierce was his output that people viewed him as mad. Abysmal self-care practices, depression, and drinking eventually led to psychiatric placements at St. Remy and at Auberge Ravoux where he continued painting through his open window.

But why paint numerous wheat fields, in all conditions—a whole series of them? you may ask, even two months before his death from the effects of an unsuccessful self-inflicted gunshot wound?

Life-long studies of scripture had opened Van Gogh to its psychic feeding. Through them, he grasped the metaphor of wheat as representing humanity’s cycles of life and death: a celebration of life and its diminishment, an example found in Jesus’s parable of The Sower (Mark 4:3-8).

I imagine Van Gogh muttering, “The next painting must work. I’m getting close.” But it never happened. Too painful to paint the critical canvas with its inspiring legacy for humanity, he chose to look elsewhere, in death. However, his legacy lives after him, even on kitchen calendars around the world.

I can’t do this anymore! I admitted to myself, gripping my cane. Like stricken puppies, my legs, refused to move, despite my commanding them to do so. I was beached, immobile, furious, a storm crashing within me.

I had already checked into the YMCA, was sucking a lemon cough drip, and was standing at my usual start position by the entrance. Ahead of me stretched the wide corridor; its recessed lighting reflecting upon the floor had helped me maintain balance the four months I’d been coming here. My helper waited for me to begin my customary walk toward the gym and the exercise room, her shadowing each step lest I fall.

That was three days ago, an experience that left me floundering in self-pity, one of the faces of grief.

It’s all about acceptance: my terminal illness has taken another hit—and there have been many—but not as pronounced as this one: Weakness like I’ve never experienced, shortness of breath that worsens speech production, and muscle loss that rouses issues of disease gnawing away at my body, despite still eating full meals prepared by helpers or brought by friends.

Yes, there’s change. Rather than use my cane, I rely upon my wheeled walker to get about—It’s slower but still works. Happily, I’m still able to blog the ongoing experience of my terminal illness, and if appropriate, I will return to the Y’s NuStep and exercise my legs—not to walk as before, of course, but to keep going, one day at a time with Precious God’s help. Besides, I’ve friends there.

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