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“Next week it’ll be eight months since I signed on for hospice. Does this kind of thing happen very often?” I asked while looping the cannula around my ears and flipping on the switch of the concentrator, its pumping and wheezing sounds filling the quiet of my dining room. Through the panes of the French doors, houseplants greened in the morning sun.

“Sounds like your experience doesn’t correspond to hospice patients you used to see when you were working?” Across from me sat Eunice for our weekly visit, her questioning mine, a technique that had opened out our dialogue at other times. She sensed my impatience with the process.

I nodded, waiting her response, from the heart. For months she had supported my spiritual growth as I moved through my end time flitting by like wind-gentled leaves. I was the lighter because of it, more accepting, most days.

“We occasionally see patients who remain a short time in our care and make their transition.” She thumbed her wooden wedding band: narrow, mocha in color, its circumference engraved with dark squiggles, then added, “However, others remain longer, especially heart patients—up to a year or more. So there’s nothing unusual about the course of your illness, given the drug that’s still working for you—Giving you more time to blog that’s honing your passion for eternal life.”

I sensed she was smiling behind her protective mask, rippled with what looked like clown smiles that jarred the beauty of her own. Still her words countered the tomfoolery of the mask.

More exchanges followed until within me a deeper level of acceptance surfaced: trust the process in its opaqueness, despite subtle worsening symptoms. Again, Eunice nodded, her soft eyes caressing my fresh resolve. How seamlessly she fitted into my world, then withdrew, barefoot, from our experience with the Sacred.

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…

In my perception, O! is like a hiccup of Spirit: It collapses disparate images into fresh paradigms, evokes quickenings, and precipitates change.

In 1957, four days before Christmas, a memorable one befell me.

A new postulant, in formation to become a nun, I hurried with the choir, our Libers in hand, down shadowy corridors toward the community room of the professed religious as their recreation concluded. We were fulfilling another Advent tradition.

The pitchpipe sounded. With full hearts, we began chanting the sixth-century antiphon, “O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death!” (Isaiah 9:1). Its strains resonated through my cells, shifted heart-heaviness, opened, anew, bleary eyes. Suddenly, homesickness, the austerities of manual work, the wintry chill, the exhaustion no longer mattered. Another world, brimming with light, engulfed my darkness; within its wake evoked surrender to this semi-cloistered life, its mysteries beckoning me.

In pursuit of the Sacred for most of my life, I continue experiencing O!s that relieve darkness and deepen my surrender to my unique path, wherever it will lead—often fraught with pain, uncertainty, and the mandate to change.

Today, my terminal illness calls for more surrender to the Unknown—all the more, with full heart, to chant O Radiant Dawn and wait in the darkness. This will eventually pass. There will be Light.

 

 

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