This morning I finished the last 4 pages of my novel, Altar of Bones by Philip Carter (a pseudonym for “an internationally renowned author,” how intriguing). Moments like this you just have to wonder who’s pulling the strings up there, making me so sleepy last night I just couldn’t even read 4 more pages, saving them for my early waking this morning when I went back to bed until the place warmed up a little from the 59 degrees it goes down to at night.
I love living here and I probably love it even more than I would if it was utterly comfortable. Living with the cold in the winter, and the flaking plaster on the interior wall along the sidewalk on the bus stop side of the building, and the lavender paint throughout the interior because it was briefly a cannabis club, the shortage of working electrical outlets, the hastily built shower that…well, never mind, the musty smell and threadbare ugly, thin (dark green?) carpeting on the entry ramp where we come in from the parking lot, and the noise from the buses and trains and the crazy homeless people shouting at all hours, which we hear as if they are right inside, with us…without all of these imperfections I might not feel like I’ve earned the privilege of living here. I don’t anyway, but it does take a certain kind of person to value the whole of it over the discomforts and be as insanely grateful as I am, as we are, to be living here.
This is all connected, trust me.
So I read the last four pages, and I was stunned, not expecting such a meaningful moment just from trying to finish this novel so I could get it back to the library. (An unexpected ending!)
The story is a fountain of youth tale, so the author has the two main characters talking about the difference between living forever and having a limited lifespan, knowing you are going to die. What they realize together exactly aligns with my philosophy of life:
We wouldn’t appreciate the precious moments in life nearly as much if we didn’t know we are going to die.
Know you’re going to die
Appreciate your life.
You’ll be so much happier, for however long you are here.
We are entrusted with this life and it’s up to us to make meaning out of it, I think. That’s what the end of Altar of Bones was saying. This is a thriller that is as action-packed as a blockbuster film, and it ends with this common-sense but deep wisdom, which I feel I’m just finally gaining here at age 58.
Working for hospice is doing me so much good. I’m finally registering and digesting (to mix metaphors, mind and body) that death is inevitable and ordinary while being a singular and profound experience for every person and their family and friends. Being around the nurses, hearing how they talk about their patients and their families with such caring objectivity, applying themselves to solving the problem of how to give this person the most comfortable and peaceful ending they can – it’s a beautiful thing to behold. That goes for the social workers, spiritual care directors, and the medical directors. You might expect the doctors to be somewhat more removed because they are overseeing so many more patients, but you’d be surprised how well they remember the person they are treating, as well as the medical conditions each one has. Interdisciplinary Team meetings are ordinary in the sense that we are just working, reviewing every patient on care with us, but it’s also sacred because we are collaborating about how to be most compassionate towards the people in our care. We never say that. It’s just what we are doing. It’s the underlying value, something we all share, and no customer service training needs to teach us to take that attitude.
Tom exemplifies the model hospice nurse to me, maybe because he sits on the closest end of the row of desks so he’s the first one I see when I arrive in the morning, doing his documentation. There’s a solidity to him, a deep commitment and sense of advocacy for his patients. But all the others have that too, it just manifests in each one differently, in terms of their own personalities. They are all beautiful, generous, intelligent human beings I am so proud to be working with. Everyone there says it’s the best team they’ve ever been part of in their working life.
So back to how it’s helping me: I was already getting there because of all my sisters dying, but now it’s becoming ordinary that people die, everyone eventually dies, so it’s becoming even more real to me that I am mortal. It is now close to the front of my mind all the time, that I could die any day. That every day is a bonus, and I want to be awake and alive in it, appreciating it for what it is. All the ordinary moments. This morning I took a picture of the top of the dishwasher with the dirty dishes on it, waiting for the clean dishes to be unloaded – a snapshot figuratively and literally of my life right now. There’s my favorite coffee cup, and the water bottle I take to work every day, the cat food bowls, the post-it we stick on the top rack to indicate the dishes are clean, the coffee basket and the bubbly water on the counter in the background.
It doesn’t hurt that this building we are living in, that I love more than any place I’ve lived in my entire life, is going to be demolished. Forced enlightenment, I call it. Every time I enjoy something about it, I remark to myself how much I’m enjoying it, and remember that I will not always have it. My husband and I were talking about this again recently, and ended up saying, “We’re all living in buildings that are going to be demolished.”
That’s my philosophy of life. Notice it and enjoy it, even the hard stuff, because at least you are here, embodied, alive on planet earth. What a privilege, even with all the evil and suffering. It’s an “Our Town” point of view. If you could only see it from the perspective of the grave, you would be so awake, and grateful, every moment.
This is not a moral imperative. It’s an invitation to great joy and happiness. I want that for myself. I want to be that awake.