Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Community & the Art of Grief

Before my father passed away years ago, he was connected to a respirator for five months. Fully conscious, aware, and still fatherly, it was a difficult thing for him to accept that the most primal human need, more than anything else, couldn't be attained without the aid of something as impersonal and unaffectionate as a medical device. The device itself was also trapped, hopelessly "plugged" into a wall, where it received its own primal need, generated and transplanted through what we now know as a grid that travels hundreds of thousands of wire miles.

Nearly every day of my father’s hospital stay, I visited him, usually in the evenings, while my mother took the day shift. He was never alone, except when he slept at night. It's still hard for me to imagine the thoughts he may have had when awakening in the dark with the macabre noise of machine-pushed oxygen. We did our very best to be with him as long and as often as we were capable of. The only times I missed a visit were those days that I myself got a head cold or a flu and feared transferring my sickness to him.

But this entry is less about loss as it is about "community." Our community was founded on an agreement that none of us had to vote on. That’s how secure the concord was. We would pass one another in the hallway and ask how things were going, and we would either whisper the truth or communicate our optimism no matter its transparency. No one would ever challenge the false hopes of another. We all understood. We all knew that someone important in each our lives was dying. This was the hospital community, a floor with very ill patients suffering from different illnesses but joined together by the same disability of not being able to breathe.

We would drop by and see the others. One man, whose wife was connected—a young woman, compared to the others—often came by my father's room asking about him and whether or not my mother needed some coffee or food. My mother's scarf never daunted him or made him feel awkward. My mother prayed for the man and his wife when he passed by, never letting the man know that he became part of my mother’s prayerful thoughts for nothing more than his politeness and offer to get her coffee. And when she made her rounds to visit others, the connected and their families invariably would ask her for prayers of well-being. It was not a typical request. They somehow associated her dress with spirituality. It's not my imagination, but her appearance had an assuaging effect. She never said anything related to the scarf; it was in the way she looked—including her bright countenance—and people instinctively or intuitively made the connection between sacred elan and attire.

But again, this is about community, what informs it and keeps it alive. It comes down to an agreement, a shared understanding of a pattern of meaning that needs communication but usually not overtly stated, something set in symbolism, like art, no matter its form, even the art of grief. I realize that a hospital setting is temporary and confined to a few principles, but in that environment—however small and self-contained—we human beings need metaphor (something connected to a higher truth not containable in the material of this world) and usually find in the connections we make. When someone is near death, someone whom we love and whose absence would shortly invite sorrow, spiritual effulgence pours forth and is profound, and, because of that, we are especially drawn to “community” and we seek it. It is natural—among the best of all natural things. There is comfort. Warmth. Love. But most of all, there is Godliness—the very stuff that the sent-down Books stress—which is drawn out in times of sadness and frustration, which apparently have appointed purpose.

We don’t really need a lot to understand important principles, like “community.” To grasp a sense of the whole, we only need to see a “part.” It’s a merciful path to learning.


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