She told me where to look. Between her desk and bookcase…or somewhere in that upstairs bedroom. I would find a brown file box, she said; her precious life work. And there it was, dust and all, buckled away but unlocked.
To let go and die, you gotta go back through your life to make sure everything is taken care of and finished. My hospice patient, who I’ll call Mary, needed to see the insides of that box one last time. Inside were the poems that represented her life, her thoughts, her wonderings, her longings, her joys, her pains. Some of them are published, and if it wasn’t for my good friend, HIPPA, I would tell you to go read her poetry because it is beautiful!
But along with her satisfaction, Mary also is bothered by her work that remains unfinished. “I got the format right for this collection, and got a good start, but I never finished it.” She doesn’t kid herself. She knows she’ll never finish that collection. Not in this world, anyway.
I sit across from her, where she sits on the couch in her livingroom-awkwardly-turned-bedroom. Mary tells me she’s been banned from climbing her own staircase, where her real bedroom patiently waits. She’s been banned by “them” — the medical professionals who’ve decided it’s unsafe. Thanks, cancer, for nothing.
I listen as she says aloud the words of her life, letting the words wash over me as a gift, like only poetry can do. We are both aware of the words that didn’t get written. The words that remain in her soul, now that her body is tired and has too many narcotics flowing through it.
I’m only 27 years into my life, and I’m already haunted by my own unfinished work. I bet you are, too. For me, the haunting mostly comes at night, like in last night’s dream. I’ve had many such dreams since November 2014 when — like Mary — my work was harshly stopped. An abrupt, brakes-screeching kind of stop. For Mary, the harsh thing was cancer and is now death itself. It’s hard to write when your heart no longer pumps blood to your arms and brain. For me, the harshness was Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), inspired by the dark parts of my childhood. It’s hard to be a therapist when you’re hyperventilating on the edge of your bathtub.
In a way, we aren’t that different — Mary and me. Both of us watched slow-motion as cold fingers, from my past, from her future (death), stretched out and grasped the parts of us we couldn’t protect. Those fingers pulled us out of the present and we had no choice. We just watched it happen, is all.
So what about this work that doesn’t get finished? What do I tell Mary and myself — except that we are in good company? (Oh, hey, Beethoven. Fancy seeing you here. How’s that unfinished symphony coming along?) As complicated as life is, death is simpler, in a way. We know our bodies stop working, and that we either rot in the ground and that’s the end…or that there is something more.
Mary is not a particularly religious person, and she tells me how the Protestants and Catholics in her family made each other miserable. She’s been sent off to schools from both traditions, as well as a Jewish school, just for kicks. And yet she tells me that she’s not particularly opposed to the concept of God, but that no one has ever really told her about God. “I don’t believe there is a heaven or a hell,” she explains. Then she adds, “But I wouldn’t mind going in up is some hallelujah!” So like any good social worker, I ask where this “hallelujah” would take her, if she could choose for herself. “It’d be a place where people are kind,” she says, “and they wouldn’t hate on each other, but would see their differences as opportunities. And animals would be treated well. I guess we’d have to be vegetarians.” We laugh at this point, and I think to myself how good she makes heaven sound.
“I’ve noticed,” Mary says, “that we seem to go about our lives as if there is something, someplace that we are working toward. As if there is something more.” We agree that she’s going to keep living as if, even here, at the end. And I think, like any nerdy Christian, of a famous C.S. Lewis quote:
“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”
I also think of J.R.R. Tolkien’s short story, “Leaf by Niggle,” about a lovable, crusty, little old man (named Niggle) who had his own frustration with unfinished life work — in his case, his painting. I ask Mary if she’s heard of the story, and of course, she has. I remind her of Niggle’s journey into the afterlife, which starts out rather bitterly for him. The rough men taking him on the journey wouldn’t let him finish his last brilliant painting of a tree and landscape. He could see it in his head, with all the brilliant shades he would use to highlight the leaves’ colors. He had the canvas, the paints, but also distractions, distractions — always something to keep him from his art.
Even though Niggle’s first stop in the afterlife was a rather miserable, dark sort of place, when he is ready, his journey continues into a light, beautiful countryside. And to Niggle’s astonishment and amazement, he discovers the most incredible tree he’d ever seen: his tree, in his old painting, just as he had imagined and created it in his mind.
This fictional story points us towards a reality after death, in which heaven is anything but a strange, bodiless existence where everyone looks and acts the same, and plays the same instrument. (Harp, of course.) Instead, the story explores the Christian understanding that our work here in this life does not end or go to waste, but is just the beginning of meaningful work that will go on and on, with results we can’t even imagine now.
When I think of Mary’s poetry, it’s not hard to imagine how her work could be continued in the next life. The unformed words would be formed, or something even deeper or more lovely than words. For me, it’s a bit more complex. Will there be a job for a social worker in heaven? In my unfinished family therapy work, I only had a job because a family was in trouble or a child had been hurt. Now I only have a job when someone is dying. We don’t know all that much about heaven, but we do know a few important things, such as that we’ll be with our good Creator, who promises to “wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore… (Rev. 21:4, ESV)
So I don’t know exactly what I’ll be doing in heaven. I trust there will be some way I can continue honoring God. In my spare time, though, I hope I can hang with Mary and read her completed poetry collection. It’d be lovely.