No one's spiritual practice is exactly like anyone else's. Life meets each of us where we need to be met, leading us to the doors with our names on them. Yet because we are human, we almost never go where no one has gone before. I remember once when I went on a walk through the woods near my house. It had rained the day before. The path under my feet was soft. The air was fragrant with damp bark and leaf rot. I was glorying in my aloneness when I came to a wash in the trail, where yesterday's rain had deposited a fresh layer of silt. Looking down, I saw that it was really a guest book, signed with deer hooves, turkey feet, snail trails, and three paws of a raccoon. I was hardly alone. I was in the middle of a parade, with life going ahead of me and more life coming along behind me to lay down its print next to mine.

My father died after a small seizure caused by his advanced brain cancer knocked him for a loop two weeks before Christmas. After the seizure was over and the ambulance had taken him to the hospital, my mother and I followed in my car. Soon his small cubicle in the emergency room was full of my sisters, their sons, and our husbands, all crowded on a white bench set against the wall. The doctors and nurses checked my father's pupils, took his blood, rolled him over so they could replace his bathrobe with a hospital gown. They were in no hurry. No one spoke to my father, except one nurse who scolded him for wetting the stretcher.

Clearly, this was no emergency. These professionals had seen lots of old men die and this one was no different. Watching them do their work, the rest of us gradually realized that my father was dying too. Two weeks before Christmas, the hospital was full, or at least the floor where they put the people who were waiting to die. Because there was no room in the inn, the medical staff left us for long stretches. During these lulls, one or the other of us would get up and go to my father, standing over him so the harsh examining room light did not shine straight in his eyes. One of us would kiss him all over his forehead. Another would dip a pink sponge on a stick in water to wet his mouth. He was dazed from the seizure, but he knew who we were.

My mother and I lamented calling the ambulance. We should have kept him at home, we confessed to each other in low voices. But it had seemed an emergency to us. Watching him go rigid on the couch in the living room, we forgot that he was not ever going to get better. We did what we were taught to do when we were afraid someone was going to die. We called 911, forgetting that even they could not prevent him from dying. My sisters joined us with their own rehearsals of remorse, as the husbands and sons held our arms and rubbed our backs.

Blessings have healing power
Reprinted from An Altar in the World by permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.


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