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Monday, 5 October 2020

Total acts of grace from the dying. Gifts from the end of life.


"Winnie." I painted this for the A Graceful Death exhibition, portraits and words from the end of life.  Here, the carer on the right is training the carer on the left to sit with Winnie, who is dying

There are, sometimes, magic moments during the dying of someone you care for.  We hear of people very near to death talking to invisible beings, telling them to wait, they are just getting ready.  There are reports of people seeing family and friends long dead, coming to visit them, and it all seems perfectly normal.  Over the last few years, I have begun to notice small but significant acts of grace during the dying of someone with whom I am, or have become, close.  I call them acts of grace but I want to call them acts of love, even though there is no proof at all that they were.  These small gifts have given me immense joy, and sometimes, I have been affected by the power of them for a long time afterwards.  Even now, recalling them, I feel my spirits lift.  Here are three of these moments of grace, these glimpses into something beyond time.

Dominic and the angels.

I painted Dom for the A Graceful Death
Exhibition. Shown here with his boule
of chemotherapy drugs that he had to carry
with him

I sat with my youngest brother all night, the day before he died.  Father Dominic, my brother, was a Catholic priest.  In his early fifties, the youngest of four of us, it seemed the natural order of things was being upended, and that he was leaving us far too soon. 

I woke in the early hours one morning, on my bed in his hospice room, remembering this deep dark time in the middle of the night had been the most difficult for Dom.  He had spoken of the difficulties the night had brought him when we talked before he arrived at the hospice.  So I went in my pyjamas to sit beside him. There was only a small light in the corner of the room, outside it was dark and silent and I prepared myself for a long wait with him.  Taking Dominic's hand in mine, I sat and watched him sleep.  He had drifted into that deep state of unconsciousness that precedes death, and I did not know where he really was.  Suddenly, I felt the room fill with joy.  I felt something change in the atmosphere around me, and I thought - there are angels here. I felt intense love, almost tangible, but invisible, swirling in the air around us and I looked around to see where this extraordinary joy was coming from.  It felt like someone was pumping pure love into the room through the air conditioning, but I knew that made no sense, and I could not work out where it was coming from.  And then, I looked at Dom and knew that he was doing this.  It is you, Dom, I said.  You are doing this!  And as the light began to change outside, and the angels, if that was what it was, were fading, Dominic took my hand in his and kissed it.  Dominic died hours later just after midday, when I had left the room for a few minutes.  But he had let me know his angels, and allowed me into his love. 

Margaret and her smile.

I loved Margaret.  I had been asked to support her for her final journey, neither of us knowing whether I would be needed for the whole of it.  As it turned out, I did stay, and Margaret in her nineties and I in my fifties then, became great friends.  She was a modest, shy, intelligent lady.  She had taught maths and music, before marrying into the church and becoming a vicar's wife and later, a mother.  Margaret was tiny.  She spoke with a strong Northern accent, and I visited her every week until near the end, when I found a way to be with her every second day.  She had no visitors but her excellent son and his wife, and me. I loved being with her, and she loved being with me.  We would tell each other we were so lucky to have met.  

Later, as Margaret drifted into the last stage of disconnection from the world, I would sit with her and keep her company.  One Sunday I had a compulsion to go and see her.  I ought not, I thought, she isn't expecting me.  But I found myself in my car driving to the home where she lived.  I really ought not, I thought as I let myself in and climbed the stairs to her room.  She lay in the bed in her little room, the sides up now, and breathed heavily and noisily.  I wondered why I had needed to come, but I sat down anyway and told her I was here, and that all was well.

Nothing happened, so after a while I prepared to leave.  Saying goodbye, I stopped at the door and I do not know what made me go back to see her again.  Leaning over the sides of  her bed to say a proper goodbye, her tiny head with white hair on the pillow, mouth open, and breath coming noisily and sharp from her throat, I told her that she was my dearest friend.  And then, Margaret opened her eyes, and looking into mine gave me the most beautiful smile that I have ever seen.  The smile filled me with joy, with love, and with utter astonishment.  It seemed to radiate light and I remember laughing and saying out loud that all was fine, it is all OK now, I know she is fine and I am so so so happy!  I was so happy.  I was elated.  It was the most wonderful gift.  I laughed all the rest of that day, and into the next.  The next day she died, and when I went to see her for the last time, I put fresh lavender on her pillow and thanked her, still laughing for joy.  Her final gift of grace had been to show me a glimpse of Heaven in a smile that shone with light and love. 

Anne and the look.

I painted this of Anne last year, requested by my cousin
Jemima, before Anne became ill.  Since this photo was taken,
I have painted forget-me-not flowers in Anne's hands.

A few days ago, my Aunt Anne died.  The last of my mother's sisters to go, it is the end of an era.  Anne, her sisters Maureen (my mother), and Kit, looked more and more like each other as they grew older.  Anne had begun to look so like my mother that I took huge comfort from it, and though they were very different in character, my mother and Kit and Anne shared such a history.  My Aunt Anne was precious to us all, the youngest of the sisters, they had had four brothers and now, after Anne's death, there are only two brothers left.  Five of the seven siblings have gone.

I visited my aunt twice during her final weeks.  She was lovingly cared for by two of her own six children, and wanted for nothing. I did not know Anne as well as I had known my mother and Kit.  I wanted to know something of the real person before she died, and so I went to see her and my cousins Maddy and Min.  I sat alone with Anne for a little while on the second visit, talking about her life, longing to know her more and understanding that perhaps, I could not.  There was a silence, Anne was looking down at her hands resting in front of her as she lay propped up in her bed.  Then she looked up and into my eyes and the power of the look was like an electric charge.  For a few seconds she shared something so deep and profound, so wonderful and so personal, that my only thought was that she was seeing me.  She was seeing my soul, she was completely and utterly seeing me.  I felt understood, affirmed, reassured.  So instead of my understanding Anne before she died, Anne understood me. It left me full of peace and awe, and I knew it was her goodbye.  There was nothing more for me to do, no more visits needed, Anne had seen into my soul, and had send me away with love.  She died a week or so later.  

What does it all mean?

This, I do not know.  The experiences are simply that, experiences and leave no physical proof behind that they occurred.  Because they happened to me and no one else - except the dying person who then died and cannot be asked about it - there is only my word for it. I am speaking of my own experiences, setting them in context and describing the effect they had on me.

Here is where they become meaningful.  These experiences were not expected.  They were surrounded by powerful feelings of love and connection that did not come from me.  If I am able to create these experiences myself, I am a very lucky person and wish I knew how I did it.  In the moment of each one of the above accounts I was, for a short while, beyond myself.  It was like a light exploding in my mind and heart, there was connection beyond my five senses and there was an understanding of it being absolutely, and perfectly, for me.  I did not understand these experiences so much as feel them and know them.  I knew what they were as they happened. My response to each was joy, tears, gratitude, laughter.  I did not question them, worry about them, analyse them, or dismiss them.  Each experience was so wonderful, I left knowing everything was perfect.  With two of them, Margaret and Anne, I did not need to go back to see them again.  They were on their way and did not need me, and made it clear that what they were doing, where they were going, was far beyond me and my small offerings here.  I was given a glimpse of perfect love and perfect understanding, and allowed to go on my way.  They then went on their way, and died.  I like to think they were surrounded constantly by the love, connection and joy that they allowed me to experience in the teeniest of ways in a microcosm of a second, and that that is what is awaiting us all. 

With thanks to my dear friend Claire for the Angels Gather Here sign.

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