>Watching, Dancing and … fishing?

>Being away from internet access for a few days is good for the soul. But answering 69 emails today (well, some of them were spam) was a bit soul-sucking. Three loads of laundry and grocery shopping are pretty grounding, as well. Where have I been? With my dear friend, Urania, who is winding down her seven-year battle with cancer. Battle is too strong a word. Urania never fought it really. Other than asking God if He would give her a break in 2002 so she could take care of her husband, Andy, on his final journey. And He did. Oh, she took Procrit and had a few blood transfusions when her red blood cells shut down production, but no chemo or radiation. And she’s still here, five years later. Her remission and survival have dumbfounded the doctors. But not the priests.

I’ve been working on a creative nonfiction essay about the special times I’ve spent with my father, my aunt, and most recently, my brother, as each of them approached their deaths between 1998 and 2007. The “frame” is Urania’s journey. The final manuscript will weave the other stories thoughout hers. But for this blog post, I’ll only share part of her story, which is actually a work in progress. You’ll get another installment next week, when I get back from Arkansas.

Arkansas? Yep. I’ll be joining my friend, Daphne, and her four kids (from Little Rock) at Jack’s Fishing Resort in Mountain View, Arkansas for a weekend on the White River. The scenery is gorgeous. The accommodations are stark. It’s a fishing camp. Daphne and I spent the night there on a road trip through northern Arkansas a couple of years ago. We decided then to come back and bring her kids and rent a fishing boat and the whole nine yards. No cell phones work there. No wi-fi. Just gorgeous water and fall trees and a rustic cabin. Good for the soul. Especially for this city girl. (Pix are from our visit to Heber Springs and Jack’s in 2005. Photo at right is Daphne at the Greer’s Ferry Dam.)
Oh, for those who don’t know Urania (I forget this is the World Wide Web!) she’s our mother, the matriarch at our parish here in Memphis. The pix below shows a few of us at our monthly gatherings with her for study and fellowship… “Thursdays With Urania.” The dressy one is me with Urania at her grandson, Andrew’s wedding in 2005. She’s only 84 here. You should have seen her dance at Sarah Mashburn’s wedding this past August! (Dancing photos below, left)

So…. here’s the first installment of my essay. “Watching.” I’ll check back in on Monday. Have a great weekend, and feel free to leave a comment. Just click on “comments” after this post and follow the instructions. (A friend recently told me my blog should be more user-friendly. I’m still new at this… give me time!) btw… not sure why the paragraph formatting didn’t transfer when I cut and pasted this from Microsoft Word… I couldn’t get the tabs to work. Oh, well, as the Greeks say, “What can you do?”
Watching

Monday

“I hope it’s soon.” Her voice is calm, with a touch of weariness.
“An theli o Theos,” I stumble on the Greek phrase which means “God willing.” She nods and smiles at my effort.
We’re sitting in a tiny study which opens onto the balcony at my friend’s retirement home. It’s a corner apartment, facing southwest. A few hours earlier the view was amazing. The sun’s late afternoon rays had been diffused by a gathering of milky clouds, slightly backlit, leaving an artist’s dream sky in its setting wake. Just when I thought it was gone, it made a brief encore appearance at the horizon─more intense than its hazy afternoon showing. I looked at my friend and wondered if her departure would follow this pattern.
Urania is eighty six. She has end stage metastatic bone cancer. I’m spending a few days with her between her children’s shifts, which have increased in frequency and duration over the past few weeks.
“Father Troy came and heard my confession and served me communion last week.” Her speech is slow and her breathing is labored. “My grandchildren and friends have all visited. I’ve said my goodbyes.”
She closes the book she’s been reading, The Kite Runner, before asking me to bring her a Vanilla Slim Fast with a straw from the refrigerator. “It’s my dessert,” she says. An hour or two earlier, she had eaten a small portion of shrimp and pasta which her son, George, had prepared while he was here this weekend.
Everyday actions take on a larger significance when someone is near death. Will The Kite Runner be the last book she ever reads? Will her last earthly sustenance be something as mundane as a can of Slim Fast?
When I help her into bed later and kiss her goodnight, all my senses are tuned to the life force in her room, which seems mystically charged… as if the angels are holding their breath.
She squeezes my hand and says, “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
“I’m too weak to kneel or even stand in front of my icons to pray tonight,” she apologizes as I pull the covers up over her frail body. “I’ll have to pray in bed.” Her eyes close and her lips move silently for a minute, and then she’s still. The prayer is working. And the Darvocet.
As I turn to leave her room, I cross myself and kiss the large icon of the Mother of God on the wall near her bed and whisper, “Lord, let thy servant depart in peace,” and then, “oh, please, God, grant her a painless death.” Tears fill my eyes. Picking up the little red Pocket Prayer Book for Orthodox Christians from the small table underneath her icons, I find “A Prayer for the Sick.” And then I say the Jesus Prayer─the ancient mantra she’s taught me: “Kirie, Jesus Christe, eleison me, ton amartalon” (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”) I’ve seen her go to a place inside herself with these words… sometimes before having a medical procedure, and especially during her husband’s long illness and death five years ago. They had been married fifty-nine years.
The nightlight casts a glimmer on the gold leaf of the halos on the icons. The oxygen pump makes a steady whoosh…whoosh. I lean over her bed in the semi-darkness, listening for the sound of her breathing. There it is, matching the rhythm of the machine breath for breath. I want to stay in her room and watch with her through the night, but I need to sleep in case there are many more nights like this ahead. Reluctantly I drag myself away from her presence and into the kitchen.
Pouring myself a glass of Cabernet Savignon and getting the coffee pot ready to turn on in the morning, I take a deep breath. This feels so familiar, this watching. I’ve been here before… several times.
*******

Tuesday

I awake at 7 am to the sounds of silence in the guest room at Urania’s apartment, and hurry to check on her status, stopping only briefly in the kitchen to turn on the coffee pot. Whoosh… whoosh… the oxygen pump greets me. My heart skips a beat as I stop to watch for signs of life. Her tiny body rises and falls with her shallow breathing. She’s still here. I exhale quietly.
Turning to face the icon of Christ in her prayer corner, my heart leads my mind and I hear myself praying: “Lord, grant me to greet the coming day in peace.” Kiss. And again before the large icon of the Holy Virgin: “It is truly meet to bless thee, O Theotokos, who art ever blessed and most pure and the Mother of our God.” Kiss. Quietly I slip out of her room.
Two cups of coffee later she’s awake and ready to dress and have breakfast. The nurse comes by and we discuss whether or not it’s time to call Hospice. Urania agrees and her son who lives in town is called. An evaluation will be arranged. She discusses this as matter-of-factly as if scheduling an oil change for her car. After the nurse leaves she naps for a hour or two. The ratio of sleeping to waking hours continues to shift. Her body is beginning to pull away from this world.
During the afternoon, amidst a flurry of phone calls from Urania’s sons, daughters, and daughters-in-law, she clings a little more tenaciously to her independence. It isn’t denial. It’s a mother’s irrational but unselfish last attempt at protecting her children from the pain of loss. Oh, she knows they are losing her, but she doesn’t want to inconvenience them, to disrupt the busy, meaningful and productive lives they have carved out for themselves. She is a second generation Greek immigrant, and her strength and beauty have given them what they need to become the successful people they are today. She doesn’t want to interrupt the blossoming of the fruit she planted. It’s been her joy to watch them live out their adult years with such fullness. But the love she gave them is the same love that is now calling them home, to her death bed. Careers and other commitments would be worked around. It’s their turn to watch.
In the interim, each day that is given to me to be with Urania, each moment, is a gift. Like tonight, when my husband, the Assistant Pastor at our church, comes to visit. We sit in that same study, the one by the balcony, and he opens The Book of Needs to pray with her.
Urania asks if she can read something first. Her favorite scripture, Psalm 104. All 35 verses. Each word is a struggle. I offer to read it for her, but she shakes her head, no. Her voice trembles, then breaks. We are privy to her uncharacteristic tears when she gets to verse 33:
I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have my being.

Her being overshadows our weak efforts at comforting her. She comforts us. We are only watching.

*******

Wednesday

Wednesday morning, October 3, at Urania’s apartment, she’s still asleep at 8 a.m. At breakfast she eats only a few bites and has difficulty swallowing the three large pills she takes from the daily dose container she always keeps by her placemat.
“What are those, anyway?” I ask.
“Calcium and vitamins.”
We look at each other, our thoughts converging. How important are calcium and vitamins to someone whose blood can no longer produce platelets? She puts the pills in a napkin, folds it up, and hands it to me for disposal in the kitchen trash. I’m watching… as she takes another step towards heaven by this action.
At ten our pastor arrives. We chat about my upcoming trip to Greece. He shares stories of his visit there a few years ago. The book, The Summer of My Greek Taverna, which I read in preparation for my trip and then loaned to Urania, is open on her ottoman, having displaced The Kite Runner as the current “last book Urania was reading” entry. While reading it during the three days I’ve been with her, she has giggled from time to time and I’ve asked what’s so funny. “There are some things you have to be Greek to understand.” I leave her to her private musings and memories. Her family is from Cephalonia, the beautiful island featured in the movie, “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.”
We’re supposed to leave on our trip in nine days, but I’d rather be with her as she is dying than be in Greece, in the country of her ancestors. And it will break my heart to miss her funeral. But the trip was planned months ago. And, as the Greeks themselves say, “What can you do?” Urania says to me, “Light a candle for me at the church on Patmos. It’s better to have you with me now than after I’m gone.”
Father John Troy serves her communion. Each time could be the last, but then she will see God face to face and will no longer need the shadow. Watching her spirituality being tested as death crouches at her door, I know that I am in the presence of one who loves God. Not just one who believes. How fitting it is that these words of Saint Diadochos of Photiki are today’s selection in the 2007 Daily Lives, Miracles, and Wisdom of the Saints:

He who loves God both believes truly and performs the works of faith reverently. But he who only believes and does not love lacks even the faith he thinks he has; for he believes merely with a certain superficiality of intellect and is not energized by the full force of love’s glory. The chief part of virtue, then, is faith, energized by love.

Holy Communion strengthens her soul even as her body weakens. Her afternoon nap is longer than yesterday’s. And then it’s time for me to leave. My three-day window is over. Her son, Tene, will be with her tonight, and others are coming into town the following day. I sit silently with her for a few minutes, watching her struggle to find the breath to express her feelings. Words really aren’t necessary at this point. Touch would be better. So I kneel on the floor in front of her chair and we embrace. And then we share a parting kiss. On the lips. Her breath is infused with the rarified air of the spiritual world. “I’ll call you tomorrow,” I say, as I walk out, leaving her with an aide and the expectation of her son’s arrival soon.
I make it down the hall before the pain erupts in my chest. Aaaarrrrrgggghhhhh! I weep and wail to the four walls of the elevator that is taking me away from her, downstairs to the door leading out of her apartment building. As I drive home, my cell phone rings. It’s Julia, one of her daughters, calling from New York. I pull myself back together and tell her about her mother’s day. Possibly the last day I will spend with her.

*******
Thursday

Thursday morning I call from my house to check on Urania. Miss Betty, the private duty nurse, answers. “She’s much weaker this morning. Wants to stay in her nightgown today.”
I ask to speak with her.
“I had a rough night,” she begins. “I had to get up several times. It’s good that Tene (her son) was here, because I’m pretty much dead weight now.” Her words, not mine.
“You’re lighter than air, Urania, but yes, it’s good that Tene is with you. It’s his place to give back some of the life you gave him, you know?”
She doesn’t answer. I’m aching to be with her, but not wanting to take up space that isn’t mine. I can see her sweet smile and the twinkle in her eye, both fading as she continues to pull away from the dim light of this life. I can imagine the brilliance of her transfigured countenance, bathed in celestial light.
Being with her during these days has felt like a visit to a sacred place. Whenever I return from a trip to the monastery I frequent in Michigan, it’s almost painful to re-enter everyday life. The business of getting meals, doing laundry, and paying bills feels like an intrusion. That’s how it’s felt today. Except that I think I’ve brought some of her goodness home with me. My steps feel a bit lighter, and my mind flows to happy memories of times spent with Urania over the fifteen or more years I’ve known her.
It’s afternoon again, and I think of her as sunset approaches, so I give her another call. This time she answers the phone and her voice is a little stronger. She encourages me to keep my plans for the weekend, that Tene is with her tonight and her other son, George will be there tomorrow.
My plans? A weekend fishing trip with my friend, Daphne, and her four kids. They live in Little Rock. We’ll be meeting at Mountain View, Arkansas, on the White River, where she’s reserved a cabin at Jack’s Fishing Resort. “Resort” is a bit of a stretch for the facilities there, but the river is beautiful and the trees just glow in the fall. We’ve been there before. But this time, I’ll think of Urania at sunset. And I’ll still be watching.

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