A Mother Encourages Understanding, Bringing Life and Death Full Circle
When Marilyn McEntyre and I talked, I traveled into a rich personal landscape, nurtured and sustained by faith, family, literature, art and nature. I also quickly discovered the guiding North Star for Marilyn, the belief that “we all belong to God.” In early childhood, Marilyn embraced her faith, modeled by her missionary parents, and particularly by her mother whom she described as “a one woman hospice provider” (before there was a hospice organization of the kind we have now). Having worked in an infirmary and school for orphans in India, her mother also routinely traveled to villages assisting medical caretakers.
“My mother always had a practical way of thinking about death, aging and loss; this was a huge gift she gave me,” Marilyn noted.
She recalled an early childhood experience involving the death of a pet guinea pig, an incident that exemplified her mother’s “hands on,” yet reverent, approach to life and death. Knowing the guinea pig was carrying multiple babies when she died, Marilyn’s mother set up a little lab table and gently dissected the corpse to reveal how the babies were tucked inside. These kinds of experiences heightened Marilyn’s intellectual curiosity and domesticated death for her, bringing life and death full circle.
Today, Marilyn finds herself entering into a new season of life, enriched and nurtured both personally and professionally by her past experiences of death and dying. Embracing this season opens new avenues of reflection for her. Having recently experienced the death of her mother and two special mentors. The question Marilyn asks now is,
“How do I learn how to do this next stretch of the journey as the elder, now that my elders are gone?”
An answer came in hospice volunteer work, where she has discovered new life mentors and companions in the patients she is honored to serve.
These people, living into the reality of approaching death, are her teachers now: they mirror back her own mortality and refresh her spiritual landscape. A reminder of the power of simplicity emerges, for instance, in a visit with a 98 year-old woman who has shed all material possessions (except for the mug on the nightstand and nightgown on her back). In this patient she witnesses the beauty of the humility it takes to accept the supportive presence of a stranger, such as a hospice volunteer, when the end is near.
These are times when patients remind Marilyn that we can all be priests for each other, a concept celebrated in Luther’s idea of “the priesthood of all believers.” She talked of two patients who expressed similar fears of dying, both rooted in an uneasy sense that they hadn’t fully forgiven those who had harmed them in the past. What eased their fears was the simple act of listening and of helping them turn their struggles of conscience over to a higher power for resolution.
Marilyn said, “A listening ear, and the conversations we have with patients can often supply a comfort similar to what believers have found in a priest’s anointing at the time of death.”
Marilyn is learning to listen at a deeper level to the peace that is present in a patient’s room. She describes the value of “just being” this way,
“Peace settles on me when I sit in the room with someone who’s releasing life at whatever pace, in whatever way. I get to just be there. Every wisdom tradition teaches some version of being in the here and now. There’s an immediacy of sitting in a room with a person who’s dying and not going anywhere, a summoning back to the present that is a powerful spiritual opportunity.”
Recognizing moments of peace, stillness and “just being” are all aspects of coming face to face with the mysteries of life and death. Though inactivity can trigger an overwhelming feeling of uselessness for some patients in their last days, Marilyn has learned from them, and tries to mirror back to them the blessing it is simply to sit and breathe and be together.
Not all moments with the dying lead into these elusive mysteries. Often, Marilyn reminds us, patients become light-hearted and amusing too, in ways that remind her of Rembrandt’s self-portraits painted in his old age, which are surprisingly playful and somewhat whimsical. She recalls patients sharing charming life stories, transporting her to different eras, of riding in horse and buggies and waiting for an ice block delivery. And a memorial service, (unlike one might expect from a lovely and devout Lutheran woman) where, at her request, a rousing rendition of Take Me Out to the Ballgame was sung, a last tribute from a fan honoring her beloved San Francisco Giants.
To Marilyn, all dying experiences fall somewhere along the broad spectrum of the human journey where moments of learning, freedom, sweetness, peace and even amusement surface in the last days, weeks and months of life.
“On any given day the emotional kaleidoscope can shift and, though all the same facts are there, the design is different. Each day with the dying is a new thing, and each of them,” she reflects, “a gift to be received with gratitude.”
Drawing on her love of literature, Marilyn evokes a line from one of Flannery O’Connor’s letters, “sentimentality is a form of obscenity”.
“I think it is really important not to sentimentalize or romanticize what is happening in death. It always surprises you and it’s always that kind of variety of the variegation of the human comedy,” She said.
“I love the richness of the hospice volunteer experience for exactly that reason,” she adds.
And, undoubtedly, her patients love her too, for a similar richness she embodies while bringing a special faith, love and beauty to their bedside, unknowingly becoming a mentor in return.
Marilyn McEntyre is volunteer for Sutter Hospice and a writer and professor of medical humanities at the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program. For more information visit: www.marilynmcentyre.com
- Seek out the wisdom of elder mentors
- Know there is beauty in humility
- Accept the change that each day brings in life and death