“You would know the secret of death. But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?”
I am in the forest. On an island. Writing.
I could say I’m here to fulfil a lifelong dream of completing a book, and that would be entirely true. Yet, it’s not the whole story. I have been summoned by nature; to this place of myriad creatures, and the soft scent of salt-infused sea. The swift wind blows tenderly here, silk ribbons undulating amongst the towering trees.
Depleted from my job at a children’s hospice, nature had been calling to me. Gentle and persistent, she whispered: I have something important to teach you. About life, and the hidden gifts that it brings. But you must learn to honour the wisdom of death in order to claim those gifts fully. For without death, life simply would not be.
I worked as the Receptionist at the hospice. My desk was situated in the centre of the main hall in an Edwardian mansion. Each day, I witnessed an endless stream of stories swirling like invisible currents around me. I was the silent observer in the midst of profound goings-on, a solitary island in the centre of a wild and unruly sea.
I became a comforting and familiar face to all who entered, greeting staff, families and volunteers each day. I also received a solemn procession of end-of-life visitors. Terrified and grief-stricken by the impossible reality of the impending death of a beloved child, they arrived heavy with emotion, wondering how to summon the strength to survive this, and the faith to know that it will somehow be okay.
My job called for a steady supply of calm presence in the midst of great uncertainty and deep despair. I became a gatekeeper of sorts – with a kind word, willing hug, compassionate ear – and the unofficial guardian of an ominous object I both dreaded and revered.
The Green Lamp was a powerful symbol, meant to communicate to all who entered that the movement of death was upon us. When unused, it sat quietly in its hidden corner, but when a child was nearing the end of life, I retrieved it from beneath my desk, clicked it on, and placed it in full view; illuminated for all to see.
The lamp was a signal to speak softly, tread lightly, for the mansion was transforming itself from a structure of everyday occurrences to a house of divine passage; portal to some great threshold place. Legions of angels assembled themselves in hallways and corners while the air became thick with expectancy, reverence and grace.
Meanwhile, the door buzzed and the phone rang; the mail was delivered and lunch preparations in the adjacent kitchen were well underway. When the child died, I reached over and clicked the lamp off. I did so reluctantly, announcing, with hesitant hand, this shocking message of finality.
There is a psychic release that follows death; a dark shudder, silent howl. It is as though the very earth and air have opened up to make way for the holy dissipation of an innocent child gone too soon, and time as we have come to know it has ceased to exist. I felt all of this from my humble desk in the centre of the main hall of the mansion. The sound of the phone faded deep into the background, menial tasks fell away, and I could not muster the strength to force a smile, or pretend that everything was okay.
So I stepped away, to quiet corners or nearby washrooms to allow the sadness to rise from my chest and throat. The sharp shards of injustice stung as the brutal reality of the loss of someone’s sweet baby (no matter what the age, still and always someone’s sweet baby) sank in. I placed my right palm firmly over my heart, bowed my head, wiped the trail of tears from my eyes.
I’ve arrived on this island thick with untold stories. As I traverse trails and shorelines, the countless faces of lost children sometimes emerge in my mind. And I see flashes of sobbing parents and inconsolable siblings, with slumped shoulders, shaky voices, trembling hands.
But I also recall moments of deep intimacy between loved ones. Powerful interactions steeped with so much love and compassion that fear and pain were transformed instantly, becoming something beautiful and nourishing: infusions of light resonating like some mystical liquid through failing organs and tiny tattered veins.
How did they do it? I watched families struggle to walk an impossible path: balancing terror, powerlessness and despair in one hand, while cradling love and gratitude in the other. Always choosing to place their gaze upon the gratitude side, however, regardless of what barriers presented themselves, or what obstacles came their way.
They were so vulnerable, yet steadfast in their resolve to be appreciative, fixing their attention firmly on the present moment, no matter how seemingly normal or mundane: Eating breakfast, holding hands, sitting outside by the gardens on a warm spring day.
Witnessing these interactions made me want to be a better person. To find my own path to habitual gratitude. To love more, laugh more, let go more. It made me want to write a book on an island in the forest. To do the things I’ve always dreamed of, before the onset of my time to die. And it made me want to curl up some place warm and safe and comforting. It made me want to cry.
Yet, when I look back upon it now, there can be no sadness. There is only appreciation for the profound reminder that even if we can’t see or feel it, the sacred is always amongst us. Its luminous presence shimmers in the background of seemingly routine happenings. Deeply embedded, it is a golden thread etched within the intricate fabric of the everyday.
And where does one go from there? What is left to do, if not fulfil the deep longing I have always carried like some secret treasure waiting to be offered up and transformed in its own unique way. My gift is the power of story. My longing is to offer this gift to others, so they may honour their own story as a path to enlightenment; to commune with the gods of creation in their own wild and wondrous way.
My courage is inspired by the pathways carved by those who have walked before me: Night pilgrims unafraid to tromp around the dark crevices and deep shadows of their vast, inner terrain. These are the midwives of story. They descend and emerge, breathless from their travels, residue of story smoke lingering, poetic words and images still coursing like lifeblood through their very veins.
I often say that my time at the hospice was an apprenticeship in life and death. But really, it was an apprenticeship in story. Story was intensified there, and I learned to play the role of compassionate witness to incredibly profound and life-changing tales. I came to view this world as a sacred training ground for harvesting raw wisdom; where our stories are birthed, lived out, and die, only to be transformed once again.
And yet, ironically, I couldn’t truly understand death while at the hospice. Deeply enmeshed in it each day – yet without the space to fully honour each child, and a lack of collective grieving rituals in place – compassion became tainted by the need for self-protection, and unattended grief seeped out through other avenues, in surprising and unexpected ways.
I’ve learned that if we don’t surrender to the many endings in life, and enter into the pain and self-exploration they bring, we cannot claim the gifts awaiting us there, and complete the great spiral of story. We cannot unearth the soul essence which governs all beings, all experiences, all things.
I see death everywhere here, on this island teeming with creation. It is expertly laced into the web of unfoldings; a soft filament hovering, misunderstood pathway, guidepost to that primordial letting go place.
So I attend to the pieces of my untold stories, which glitter like dark diamonds each day. Arising from night dreams, feelings, and intuition, they hold the seeds of unrealized wisdom; carry the blueprint to an ancient system of divine alchemy I’ve come to trust along the way.
So thank you, beloved island, for guiding me here – to this realm of spirals and stories. Thank you, precious children, for teaching me to treasure each and every moment – and for revealing the path to a deeper, more authentic way. And thank you, bereaved loved ones, for relaying the message that no matter what tragedy arises, we can make it through another hour, another day. That despite the unbearable pain and deep suffering, the promise of fresh story awaits. Patient and tender, it whispers: I know that the road has been hard, my sweet one. But everything is going to be okay.
To donate to Canuck Place Children’s Hospice, click here: http://www.canuckplace.org/