Thursday, 9 June 2011

Living with the Dying

Since the start of June, I began my 1-month pastoral attachment to St Joseph's Home and Hospice. I stay-in together with the residents, sleep on the same 'hospital bed' as the residents - albeit in a separate room, get bitten by the same red ants that also keep some residents awake at night, and hear the same shouts and screams of some other residents in the middle of the night. Each day, I bathe them, dress them, feed them, and spend time talking to them - or sometimes hear them ranting instead. Almost all of the residents are wheelchair-bound or bed-bound. About half require assistance for almost every simple basic task. A small number are merely and most unwillingly counting their last days. After about a week of interacting with the residents, I have observed 2 broad categories of residents.

The Living Dead
These are the ones I feel very helpless towards. Apart from being given a bath and being fed, they spend the rest of their day sitting listlessly and staring into space. Boredom creeps into their very souls and taunts them every now and then until they become a permanent fixture in their everyday life. Those who can talk share hopelessly about their previous state of life, the things they used to be able to do and control, the career they used to be able to gain wealth and pride with, the food and independence they used to be able to enjoy. Yet, given their current state of life, they sink into depression and resignation, not knowing how to go on from here, and eventually lose all sense of meaning and purpose in living. The worse are the ones deprived of love, care and regular visits from their family members, simply left all on their own with only their pain and sorrow of isolation and desertion to accompany them with every excruciating passing minute. The most painful to watch, are the ones with fear of death in their eyes that remain widely opened for fear that closing them may be the last action they ever get to do. Every moment they lie in denial and resistance, insisting to feed themselves when they no longer have the ability to, wanting to cry but refusing to carry it through. Though I see the staff and volunteers making every effort to give them some form of human dignity - such as combing their hair, cutting their nails, giving them wallets to keep in their pockets - and spend time talking to them, joking with them, or simply being present to them, it still stings me to see them in such a lifeless state.

The Dying to Live
Yet, it isn't all doom and gloom in the Home. There is another group of residents who somehow have been able to spend their days not only meaningfully but joyfully, to the point that they become the ones who sometimes 'minister' to me and bring me joy and hope. Just to point out 3 examples:

The first cheerful resident I was introduced to was an orphan at a very young age. She was taken care by the religious sisters and stayed with them for the most part of her life. Though she can walk, she has very poor eyesight that does not reach beyond her outstretched arms, and is hard of speech and hearing. Yet, every morning without fail, she walks into the chapel - or feels her way through more like it - and faithfully closes the windows or sometimes cleans them as a personal duty that she has adopted out of her own generosity. Each time you reach out to touch her, her failing eyes burst open as she throws this huge megawatt smile into your face that just melts your heart. And she most enjoys communicating with people when you trace out letters into her palm while she does the same to your palm in response.

The next uncle that amazes me may be in a wheelchair, and is also hard of speech and hearing, but he faithfully spends every day going through his own 'stations'. 4 times a day - or sometimes more - he would pray before the statue of Mother Mary with tightly clenched fists and deeply focused eyes, before adopting the same posture in front of a picture of Jesus, then followed by other statues of saints in the Home. Sometimes, you even see him in front of fishtanks or birdcages as if he were keeping them company by talking to them. Then, if you happen to pass him by and wave to him, he bursts into his own megawatt smile and excitedly makes small talk with you through simple gestures that makes it look like you just made his day.

Another astounding resident is wheelchair-bound and unable to speak, and whose contorted body and face requires others to feed him. Yet, he makes it a point to drink water on his own, carrying each glass with weak but determined fingers, lifting it up as he bends his head awkwardly backwards so as to pour water precariously into his gaping mouth that at times overflows and sends streams of water flowing down his neck. Yet, he appears unfazed and remains strong-willed and happy drinking on his own. He also loves having conversations with people, listening to others talk and then responding by spelling out words through patiently pointing letters one at a time printed on a card on his lap. He often asks me to take him on evening walks where he would asks questions about life and God, and often gets very excited and jolly when I make a joke or say something very encouraging and positive. He shares his fear of dying, but allows himself to be encouraged when I reassure him of God's presence and providence in his life.

These are just few of the many whom I see God working powerfully through them, making them powerful witnesses and 'prophets' of how we ought to live life, and more so how we often fail to live life even when we may be physically healthy.

The question that remains on my mind is what makes these 2 general groups of people so different despite the similar circumstances that they are all living - or dying - in?

"Learn how to live, and you'll know how to die; learn how to die, and you'll know how to live"

I got the chance in the Home to watch a movie based on Mitch Albom's book 'Tuesdays with Morrie', and one of the things that struck me in the movie was the above quote in bold by Morrie Schwartz, a school professor who gave his famous last 'lecture' on how to live, while he was dying. And how glaringly true his quote became as I reflected on the residents above. Yet death is a topic we are often unwilling to face or even think about. But the consequences have now become more real and alarming than I ever realised.

But how then do we learn how to live and die? I reflected on this question during my quiet prayer time, and soon the life, and death, of Christ our Saviour came to mind. Jesus first spent His life walking His talk by living out His 2 commandments for us which simply put is: Love God and neighbour. We see the love and trust He had for the Father, and the love and compassion He had for His people in His days on earth. Every moment of His life was centered upon God the Father, and focused on living for the people, not for Himself. And through the way He lived, He re-emphasized it through the way that He died - in total surrender, trust and faith in the Father's will, and in total self-giving love for the world. And through His death, He brought about New Life, for Himself in His resurrection, and for us, if we are to accept it, and live it.

The question that remains for each of us is: are we willing to learn how to live, so that we may be prepared how to die? Are we willing to think about death and learn how to die, so that we may be more equipped on how to live? We can always choose to continue living life the way we want, acquire the things in life we want, control the things we want, and enjoy the things we want. But will we ever be prepared for the day that may come at any point of our God-given life that may leave us helpless, hopeless, and eventually lifeless? If not, now may be the time we start thinking about death, and prepare for it, so that when we start to learn how to love our God and trust in His providence and will, and learn to live life meaningfully out of true, selfless love for others, the day may come when we may be physically deteriorating, and physically dying, yet we may continue to find joy, peace and meaning in being loving and life-giving in whatever small way possible, and spend every last days of our life...