Reaching Across the Edges

rsz_people_chain

I kneeled on the blue mat next to Sam’s bed in the skilled-care wing of the senior care facility. My elbows were on the edge of his bed as I leaned forward to hear him better. I felt like one of those old-fashioned needle point pictures of the children praying before bed, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep . . . .”

Sam struggled to get the words out. He was telling me something about his time as a farm worker. I smiled and nodded, careful to show interest without derailing him with extra questions.

“Who are you again?” He would ask every few minutes.  “A nurse?”

“No, not a nurse.  I’m a volunteer with hospice.  I’m just here to visit with you today.”

“Oh, that’s right!” His eyes lit up and he nodded enthusiastically like I’d answered a question on a game show correctly.  “Hospice, that’s a good organization. Really helps people, you know?”

I did know, or at least I’d hoped so.  

“Hard work, though, right?”

Yes, it is hard work.  Heartbreaking work, actually.  But it was the heartbreak I was after when I called a local hospice on a crisp winter day and asked if they needed volunteers.  

“I need to get out of my head.”  I explained. “I need to work with people again.”  This was true. Spending so much time behind a computer screen was making me feel removed from real life. What was also true was that I was looking for something more than just entertainment to distract from my sense of restlessness.

It turns out that the American dream picket fence suburban life doesn’t bring much in the way of daily challenge, purposeful fulfillment or real community. Oh, I’m not complaining. I love my life and am so grateful for it. Still, the relationship and community that form around manicured lawns and school concerns isn’t the same community that forms around sharing our deepest stories.  

This realization hit me with great force one day as I showed my daughter how to cut out one of those little paper people chains. As we cut, I reminded her of the one rule in paper-people-cutting. “Be careful not to cut through the folds of the paper. The people are connected at the edges.”  

People are connected at the edges.

While we might seek out rest and quiet, carefully grooming our lives to be as painless as possible, the places of unrest—the edges—are the ones in which we grow. Those painful, heartbreaking places are the ones in which we discover ourselves and, if we’re lucky, discover others. It seems that our connections to each other become stronger when we’re forced to hold on through the uncertainties of life—to make space for quiet in the disquiet, rest in the unrest, relationship in the isolation.

This is not to say that we should live in a constant state of drama. Drama does not lead to growth or connection. It is, in fact, a defense mechanism against all the good that might come out of a tough time. No, drama wasn’t the answer to my malaise.

But this moment with this beautiful, confused, dying man was the answer. I leaned forward again, taking his hand, holding on across the edges of this life. There will be tears later, I know this. I will one day find myself navigating a dementia-fueled conversation in this same cheery room. Or perhaps I’ll arrive some afternoon to discover that he has settled into that last, deep coma. For absolute certain, I will hear the hard news of his death and will find myself going for a run while tears stream down my face, crying for his brokenness and mine.  

This is the thing I struggle to explain when I talk about my work with hospice. It is paradoxical, really, to soothe a growing sense of unease by entering into a situation that will unquestionably be filled with more unease. But the only way I know to meet the gnawing disquiet is to rush headlong into it—to counter a general malaise with a heartbreaking love.  It is an act of faith, this reaching across the edges rather than huddling into the security of the middle.  

So I do it, week after week, trusting that the edge really is the place of deepest connection and that even in the end—no, especially in the end—these will be the things that matter.

Amelia Dress

Amelia Dress

Amelia Richardson Dress is always on the look-out for the zest of life.She laughs and cries easily, sometimes both at once.She loves talk and write about the places where real life and spirituality intersect.
Amelia Dress

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  • So beautiful. That is hard and holy work. This is SO right – “While we might seek out rest and quiet, carefully grooming our lives to be as painless as possible, the places of unrest—the edges—are the ones in which we grow.” I’m so tired of comfort over growth. Thank you for this stark reminder that we are all connected by pain (and the healing that we bring to each other)!

    • I love that point–comfort over growth. That’s exactly what happens isn’t it? And then we realize it’s not satisfying at all. 🙂

  • Beautiful and true. Especially this “Still, the relationship and community that form around manicured lawns and school concerns isn’t the same community that forms around sharing our deepest stories.” I long for those places where people connect and can honestly share their struggles.

    • Yes! Me too. It’s a dull ache to discover your life is exactly where you dreamed it would be and that it’s not all you hoped. I’ve been lucky to find real communities of hope and depth but it takes work in today’s world.

  • Many wonderful people feel called to volunteer for Hospice. They are strong, wise, have supportive friends, and want to walk into the holy space, the thin space, where heaven and earth are so close you have a hard time telling the difference. They do this work not because they need cleansing, but because they need to pull up their sleeves and spend some time in the rich earth which is story and silence and sleep and long days. Amelia, this is beautiful.
    From a little different perspective, I live in a community of pastors – some retired, some active – and as many are aging, death comes visiting often. Last week I went away for a few days to rest (my idea of vacation is to go
    somewhere and do nothing!) All the grandchildren had been very ill and were finally recuperating – very frightening. On the weekend, actually on my birthday, J called and told me that her husband had had a terrible stroke and was unresponsive. She is a dear friend, who expends herself taking care of others. So Advanced directives were taken out and reviewed, and, basically we waited …. was it time, or would he come back?
    I am writing this as my power is off, and electricians are working to fix the old, old system in one day
    Dear Tammy, I think you named this space, and you know, today it’s very frustration.Life does not come in neat packages or hours or days, but in little (or big) disasters which tug like a tornado. Sometimes I just have to say: “Enough!” Mary Ellen

    • It’s a sacred, fierce beauty to walk with others at the end of life, isn’t it? I always found it heartbreaking and humbling when I was a chaplain-I know you understand that from your own experiences. (I’d love to hear more about your community of retired pastors!) I’ll be holding J and her husband in prayer!

      • Amelia, thanks for your kind thoughts. My friend’s husband was moved to hospice on Sunday night, and he died this afternoon. Family is arriving. This in-between time when we pull back to give them their space is a good time to refresh our thoughts and feelings. Sad, but this is life. @LatelaMary

        • Mary, I’ve thought of you and your friend and am so sorry for the loss. Blessings for this in-between time for you all and of course continued prayers. (I am typing and thinking, too, of how lucky your friend is to have loving people in her life now. What a gift!)

          • Amelia, this is the answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” I went over and hugged my friend at home this morning. She is very tired, but very relieved as well. Rest in peace. Amelia, I’ll write to you next week about our community. Mary

  • “People are connected at the edges.”
    This is such a powerful sentence, and it shows me up for the cowardly middle-dweller that I am.
    I honor you for your commitment to putting yourself in the way of sorrow and hard days with your volunteer work.
    Blessings.

    • The middle is such a safe place, I’ve been known to spend some time there myself. 🙂 Sometimes it’s also true that our edges don’t look like other people’s edges…I wonder if you’re reaching out more than you realize. Thank you for your kind words!

  • Holly Marie Hinson

    This is stunningly beautiful and hit right in the heart of me. Thank you so much for writing this; it is powerful and personally meaningful.

    • Thank you, Holly! I’m so, so glad it was meaningful for you. Blessings for your own journey!