Soul Meets Body: A Reflection on the Moment of Death

One patient, actively dying then gone, was named for an energetic force—a star. When I walked into the room for a routine visit, I didn’t know in what stage I would find her. Chaplaincy is like that. Each broken plane is a step into the unknown where we must get grounded in the groundless and somehow connect, too.

 

By Katie Willis

It’s been awhile since I cried through the week.

It occurs to me that that’s where the good work gets done: on the razor-thin edge of “I’m here for you— present, allowing, holding, calm and grounded.” My heart is aching at full throttle as I turn Greta Van Fleet up to 30 in the car, and cry a little bit, in-between patient visits. I warn my kids before supper that Mama is a wee bit fragile and quiet tonight; don’t worry because I’m simply processing, but I’m still listening.

That place where spiritual work gets done is so weak and resilient all at once—the ground of being that is groundless.

It had been one patient after the other all day. Some dying. One, perhaps, beginning to transition. One actively dying, then gone. One beginning the “hospice limbo journey,” as yet another family member signed a loved one on to service, ungrounded with fear of the unknown. No time—not even for lunch.

The day was one intense encounter after another. So, when I saw my kid at the bus stop waiting for me to pick him up, I sighed with relief and release, a let-down response which still lingers well past nursing my kids that is no longer physical, but emotional. I feel better and grounded, though I didn’t know I was floating and worse off until then.

We drove silently, “Hi, Baby,” “Hi, Mama,” as we wound our way down Alewife Brooke Parkway along the Mystic River toward home. It is always a dissonance to feel the energy of my sweet, blond baby next to me, and look over to see my man-cub 5’8.5″, sideburns, and caramel colored hair down to his waist; his eyes are the same, though.

“Mama had a hard day because I sat with someone while they died, so you need to be nice to me tonight. No fighting. Okay?”

“Thanks for telling me. That’s just what I need to hear in my life.” His sarcastic delivery was unmistakable.

“You’re welcome. You do need that in your life. You need to learn how to communicate about your feelings with your family and loved ones around you, and how to be open and supportive of your family.”

He put his earbuds in, but they weren’t turned up all the way like usual because he heard me right away when I said half to myself gesturing with an open hand from one spot of nothing in front of me to another, “It’s so weird sometimes to see. They are there, and then they are not there.”

“I don’t think it’s weird.”

“Where do you think they go?” We begin to debate, both of us with eyes on the road ahead.

“Nowhere. Nothing happens. They just stop living.”

“But there is energy. It goes somewhere.”

“Yeah. It’s science. I believe in science. The energy just stops.”

“But what is sparking the energy, and what stops sparking the energy that animates the body. Do you think you’re really just a bag of bones and flesh and goo?”

“Food…”

“…that’s just calories…”

“…same thing. Don’t you know…”

“I know how calories work, Oliver. I think ya need to admit that I have a bit more experience with death, and I’m talking about something more complex.”

“Maybe.”

“Well, when was the last time you sat vigil with someone and closely observed while their last breath left their body?”

“Um, Mom. Look,” the pointed finger of his hand pierces my peripheral view directing my attention to the dashboard’s illuminated digital display of the radio station and current song playing.

It reads Soul Meets Body, by Death Cab for Cutie.

“See? You see what I mean, son! There is something else at play. That’s a sign from the universe.”

He is grinning, and does not argue with me further on this point. I turn up the volume.

“Let’s see what the music has to tell us about this.”

Riding alongside the river, the car seems brighter and warmer with a more alive—levity to our already good-natured debate. I feel heard and seen, and he seems to be floating somewhere between a robust teenaged dismal of the “coincidence” and taking critical purchase of the possibility of something else. We listen intently to the words.

The sky beyond the dash, beyond the glass, beyond the road and all the signs is flax-flower blue, verditer blue, ultramarine blue. It is alive with blues. It is nowhere and it is there. The blue is in his eyes, and it is in my eyes. We share that trait.

Death Cab for Cutie sings:

“I want to live where soul meets body
And let the sun wrap its arms around me and
Bathe my skin in water cool and cleansing
And feel

Feel what it’s like to be new

‘Cause in my head there’s a Greyhound station
Where I send my thoughts to far off destinations
So they may have a chance of finding a place where they’re
Far more suited than here”

One patient, actively dying then gone, was named for an energetic force—a star. When I walked into the room for a routine visit, I didn’t know in what stage I would find her. Chaplaincy is like that. Each broken plane is a step into the unknown where we must get grounded in the groundless and somehow connect, too.

Death has scents and the room was permeated. Knowing this person’s tradition, I brought along the Vidui Prayer.

At dinner I could not eat much of the food I ordered for us all from takeout. A few bites of warm tater tots and Smoky-Maple Bourbon ice cream have never felt more comforting. When Oliver commented, I replied, “It was such a hard day. It took my appetite.”

All evening I wept on and off. Sometimes the tears just have to move through me. I didn’t know them, this person named for a star, as well as I’ve known others, and do know others who will be gone soon, too.

“I cannot guess what we’ll discover
When we turn the dirt with our palms cupped like shovels
But I know our filthy hands can wash one another’s
And not one speck will remain

I do believe it’s true
That there are roads left in both of our shoes
But if the silence takes you
Then I hope it takes me too…

Where soul meets body
Where soul meets body
Where soul meets body”
 

I can’t even say I felt sad the whole night, but the tears would well up, seep through, and roll unattached to thought all evening. It was as if, organically, my body was somatically responding to their body; in homage of the intimate process I witnessed of watching their neck, like a slender river cease to rise with little pulses (beacon signals) and their Pranayama (life force air) become not the given repetition that it is for us living, but instead, and in an instant, a great hull of ship with the final, full exhalation carrying this star’s consciousness on—their blue eyes dim, fixed, grey-blue glass.

The ground of being, now, just a lingering note of a pulsating musical phrase from a song we all know by heart, and sing with every breath.

 

 

That place where spiritual work gets done is so weak and resilient all at once---the ground of being that is groundless. ~ Katie Willis Click To Tweet

 

Kathleen Willis, MFA and MDiv, is the author of The Blue Poppy and the Mustard Seed: A Mother’s Story of Loss and Hope, Wisdom Publications; a writing instructor at Grub St. in Boston; and founder/director of Dakinis Ascending Writing Adventures, leading international writing and meditation retreats. She is authorized by Lama Khenpo Migmar of Sakya Institute for Buddhist Studies to teach Tibetan Vajrayana meditation. She is also an Interfaith Chaplain. Having previously worked in Hospice for a few years she is currently the Chaplain/Interfaith Care Coordinator for the Massachusetts Essex County Sheriff’s Dept. of Corrections.

 

Photo: Pixabay

Editor: Alicia Wozniak

 

 

 

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Kathleen Willis

Columnist & Featured Writer at The Tattooed Buddha
Kathleen Willis, author of The Blue Poppy and the Mustard Seed; a Mother’s Story of Loss and Hope(Wisdom Publications, 2009) is, in addition to being a writing instructor for Grub St. in Boston, launching Dakinis Ascending Writing Adventures, with its maiden voyage to Bali in Oct. for the Dakini Wisdom Writing/Meditation Retreat. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing. She is also a Buddhist Hospice Chaplain caring for the dying and their families in the Boston area. She holds an M.Div in Theological Studies. She is authorized by Khen Rinpoche Lama Migmar Tseten of the Sakya Institute for Buddhist Studies to guide and transmit Green Tara practice and mantra. She has been a longtime student of Her Eminence Jetsün Chimey Luding Rinpoche and also a student of Lama Tsultrim Allione among other preeminent Tibetan Lamas. She is the mother of two teenagers and lives in Medford, MA. As, “Lhamo’s Log: Living and Dying in Dharma”, a featured writer for Tattooed Buddha she writes essays about end of life, art, travel, parenting, and occasional art/food/book reviews.
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