The last time I wrote, I asked us to buckle our seat belts, connect to those we love, and prepare for the deep dive inward. Little did I know just how tight my own seat belt would need to be, or just how inward I’d be plunging.
Now that it’s March, those of us in the northern hemisphere sense the upward-moving energy of prana buzzing underfoot. Spring is springing, and after the most locked-down winter we’ll perhaps ever know, opportunities to enjoy the outdoors are growing. As yoga philosophy teaches us, change is the only constant—and if we need proof, blossoming flowers sure do offer that. They provide a beautiful symbol of something that was underground, preparing, changing all along, even if we couldn’t see it.
Again, little did I know, about the bittersweet story of spring flowers I’d be sharing with you now.
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After not being able to visit my father’s Assisted Living since the beginning of the pandemic, he was hospitalized last December for what turned out to be pneumonia. A week of ineffective antibiotics prompted a swallow study, which revealed a worn-out swallow reflex. Because he was continually aspirating, the pneumonia would be chronic; this was a terminal diagnosis, though not necessarily imminent.
The days of digesting each stage of news involved a mix of shock and acceptance, taking in and letting go. Above all, I recall gratitude that the diagnosis warranted hospice support, which meant not only greater comfort for my father, but also that I would be granted access inside the hospital and we would finally be able to see each other. It also meant that I’d make arrangements for him to live out the rest of his days, however many or few as they might be, in my home, with hospice support. While I had understood the need for the lockdown over the past nine months, and appreciated the phone, I had also felt, for the better part of a year now, the dark, bizarre sense that he was only two miles away from me in a very pretty, visitor-less prison cell. I was grateful that those days were over, and if we didn’t have quantity, we would at least have quality.
Walking into his hospital room that first time, I was taken aback by how much thinner and more frail he was, but his unique sparkle was as strong as ever, and we rejoiced at being together. We met with the kind-hearted, informative hospice team, and finalized plans to get him to my home. Our spirits were remarkably high.
I spent the next day receiving medical equipment, shopping for his favorite foods, and otherwise preparing my home for his arrival the following day, and then went to sleep early, as it would be my last night without caregiving duties for an unknown period of time: I was hoping for weeks to months, packed to the brim with all the warmth I could provide.
Sadly, the next morning brought the call that he wouldn’t be making it to my home after all. Things had progressed more quickly overnight, and he was requiring pain meds through an IV now: something I couldn’t do at home. I cursed aloud when the nurse predicted that he now had hours to days remaining, stuffed a duffel bag with enough snacks and water to not have to leave his room for days, and made the hasty drive through the sleet. The only presence I felt with me as I drove was the thought that on the drive back home at some point, I would be different, fatherless.
He passed away that evening: New Year’s Eve. I’m so grateful to say that I was by his side as he transitioned. I know not everyone gets to say this, especially during these harrowing times.
I spent a lot of time over the next few days in the hospital bed in my living room. The bed hadn’t gotten the chance to cradle my dad’s thinning body, but it could hold me now, curled on my side, looking around to see what he would have seen: my two sons playing by the fire, the dog asleep on the floor, the altar I’d arranged with flowers and photographs of those I imagined beckoning him warmly to the other side: his parents, my mother, my sister.
At some point, I received a call from the hospital letting me know they had a few of his personal items, which would now be waiting for me in the security department. The next day—after some time for a bit of preparation, I suppose—I drove back to the hospital. This drive to the hospital was much slower than the one days before, and somewhat surreal, stitching the oddly mundane–the same buildings and roads I’d seen a thousand times, the cars carting people through a normal, sunny day–with the very heightened awareness of going to a site of great pain, and of doing something for one last time.
I parked, got myself into the building, and found a woman with a staff badge sitting just inside the door in a tall-legged chair. When I asked her where to find the security department, she began to explain, but soon seemed to find it a confusing task, and told me that she was on a break and may as well get some exercise to guide me. I felt appreciative of her gesture, and repressed my reflex to tell her not to go to all that trouble. I felt even more cared-for as we walked and talked, and as she took in why I’d come with the sap-free but deep presence that I appreciate about many of us in healthcare. Realizing at the end our our winding journey that I’d have surely never found the security department door on my own, I thanked her in earnest, and listened to her departing footsteps while gathering myself to knock.
When I did, an older gentleman opened it, revealing a younger one behind, surveying a wall of video monitors. I explained why I was there, and gave my father’s name. He asked me the date of my father’s death, and as I tried to find the answer, I became aware of the floor falling away just a bit. I was unable to think. I tried counting backwards from the day’s date but couldn’t remember what the day’s date was. I had a vague recollection that there was something about the death date that made it easy to recall, but what could that’ve been? The man’s simple question had overwhelmed me, perhaps because it meant hearing someone else, for the first time, state the fact of my father’s death out loud. He saw my struggle, and reassuringly changed the question to simply confirm that it had been in the last few weeks—presumably older items were placed in some other, deeper freeze. I nodded—yes…recently—and he stepped into a back room.
He returned after a moment with a sealed, white plastic bag, and handed it to me. Then, looking me directly in the eyes, he said, in a sincere, slow voice: “We’re in the middle of a very long winter.”
“It’s true…” I agreed, nodding slowly.
He lowered his head a bit, as if to tell me a secret, and then stated a simple fact: “Spring will come again, and flowers will bloom.”
Tears filled my eyes. Grief for this particular winter, which has presumably required this man to hand over more bags than usual. For all the bags he’s ever handed over. For all the bags anywhere in any hospital, and for all the bereft loved ones receiving them. Greif for all the bereft whose loved ones never did leave anything at the hospital but who died here nonetheless. For all the bereft who died outside of hospitals, too. Out and out, like rings from a stone thrown into a pond, I stood there as tears welled up and eventually fell.
“Thank you.” I said, looking him in the eye. Both of us were silent, acknowledging a sacred moment of shared humanity, before I turned to wind my way back through the maze to the parking garage.
Like so many who have touched my heart, I don’t know this man’s name, and never will. Like so many who have touched your hearts as well, nameless, even faceless, this man’s prediction of flowers didn’t so much comfort me because it reminded me that spring comes next, for I don’t expect that spring will necessarily wash away my sadness. It comforted me because it reminded me of the boundless warmth and sturdy support we can provide to one another, even as perfect strangers.
And he was right! There are daffodils from my garden in a milk bottle on the coffee table. There are crocus buds outside my door. These flowers will eventually wilt and find themselves turned among the compost to make other things grow, but their symbol will live in my mind, in stories like this one.
Could you find a way to be a tiny blossom to another being? Could you reach out to them right now? Can we let the gratitude of warmer days after a pandemic winter spark more kindness, and less fear? Fearless not because we know for sure we’re any safer, but because we have one another? I hope so. The word yoga, as you may known, means union, or to yoke, or harness. May we all try, now more than ever perhaps, to connect, in even the smallest ways. Especially in the small ways, as the small opportunities lie endless before us. See the divine in the eyes of the other, the light in you bowing to the light in them, even wordlessly. Put yoga into practice here, and there, and everywhere, and as always, feel free to let me know about what you find when you do.