Thursday, August 14, 2014

At the End of Life

I'm greatly indebted to the Friends Meeting where I became a Quaker. One of the long term members, who has never been anything but polite and cordial to me, is in the last stages of her life. She's been dealing with breast cancer well over a decade. It never kills her, but she knows another bout of treatment is yet to come. The impact of chemo and radiation have transformed her arms and legs, shrinking them to the circumference of birds. To protect her privacy, I'm not going to reveal her name or many other identifying details.

Knowing what I know, I could have easily looked down on this woman. Like Jesus speaking to a Samaritan woman with a bad reputation at the well, it would have been perfectly within my means to ignore her and not incorporate her into my spiritual community. She holds several shocking distinctions: former alcoholic, first woman in the state to have to pay child support, and a bad judge of character, which meant that her only daughter was physically abused by her second husband. She seemingly was incapable of knowing how to be an adequate parent.

Years later, her daughter was fired from her job as a teacher for stealing classroom equipment and having her actions recorded by surveillance cameras, so that there was undeniable proof of her guilt. Her teaching certificate was revoked due to her conviction on a felony offense. Prior to that incident, she stole multiple times from acquaintances and friends who were too embarrassed to press charges. Scars that deep never go away. She never stood a chance, due to her upbringing.

One day, several years ago, her mother received word of the cancer. I'm sure that some who knew her felt that this was karma in action. To them, she deserved nothing less than to be punished. Her very presence reflected badly on the Meeting as a whole. Why would we would welcome someone with such a troubled past? That would have been hypocrisy on our part, because Jesus welcomed everyone to his side. He sat with prostitutes and tax collectors.

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew's house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. But when the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with such scum? When Jesus heard this, he said, "Healthy people don't need a doctor--sick people do. Then he added, "Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: 'I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.' For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners."
It's easy to get up on our high horse, believing ourselves to surely be better than some other person with poor odds and little chance for success. When I was in my late teens, I discovered the music of Lou Reed the first time. After plowing through the Velvet Underground albums and Transformer, I cautiously dipped a toe into the super-bleak Berlin. It was morose even for me, but a few songs held up under scrutiny. 

They're taking her children away
Because they said she was not a good mother
They're taking her children away
Because she was making it with sisters and brothers
And everyone else, all of the others
Like cheap officers who would stand there and flirt in front of me
They're taking her children away
Because they said she was not a good mother
They're taking her children away
Because of the things that they heard she had done
The black Air Force sergeant was not the first one
And all of the drugs she took, every one, every one 
And I am the Water Boy, the real game's not over here
But my heart is overflowin' anyway
I'm just a tired man, no words to say
But since she lost her daughter
It's her eyes that fill with water
And I am much happier this way- Lou Reed (1972)

There's another important distinction to be noted. When I was attending Friends Meeting, I had a severe manic episode that made my behavior erratic and deranged for a couple of months. I'm told that I was belligerent and accusatory, even calling up members on the phone at their work to rant about nonsensical concerns. I raved enthusiastically and angrily for reasons I can barely fathom today. I'm told I made the secretary of one Friend cry. I was ready to beg for forgiveness in their eyes, but no apology was needed. That to me is the very definition of love and forgiveness.

Once I was discharged from the hospital, they handled the process with incredible care. When I was still too ill to drive, someone was always there to take me to Meeting. I confessed to another member of the Meeting that I felt extremely embarrassed for my earlier behavior. She said that they knew that my behavior was out of character. I spent nearly four weeks in the hospital, and emerged reborn. That's how everyone feels with a clean bill of health, trying to make sense about what happened.

As is true with many Quaker Meetings, most of the attendance is female. The women who cared for me were extremely maternal. In fact, they all mothered me. That behavior would normally have made me uncomfortable, but under the circumstances it was exactly what I needed. I'm thankful for the Friend who, as I said earlier, drove me from my home to Meeting every First Day like clockwork. She was a social worker by trade and a Hurricane Katrina evacuee. Suffice it to say, she had seen and done everything. Her work on my behalf was impeccably done.

Where I Worship today, I know that I might not be approached in such a magnanimous fashion. I would probably be farmed off to a particular committee of people, which in theory is efficient, but what is more efficient is not needing to ask permission to help someone, or to seek unity in order to help someone. In my previous location, people spontaneously sprang into action to help. It is the reason why I am thankful for that Meeting and also why I pray for the member who is now clinging to life. She is fortunate to be among fellow Quakers, who have unselfishly taken turns to make sure her last days run smoothly.

In time, people will be asking themselves the same questions. Is nature responsible, or is nurture the real culprit? I would lean more towards the latter. Alcoholism is a disease as is any addiction. But what I think is that the turmoil and trauma of a couple bad marriages made more of an impact on her daughter than anything else. I don't think the total blame of anyone's child who steals flagrantly for the pure sport of it can be lain at the feet of her mother. One may never know the answers to questions like that.

What makes a tax collector or a prostitute, for that matter? Tax collectors colluded with the Roman Empire, who was occupying them. They were seen as traitors as a result. Some tax collectors were unscrupulous and charged more than they were supposed to, pocketing the rest for themselves. This made them extremely unpopular. Prostitutes were judged as harshly as they are today, but they provided a service that men wanted. And yet most Jews of the time felt themselves far above sex workers.

To return to our original topic, many people will need to make their peace when death finally arrives. What I have learned about this Friend comes from outside sources. It was never brought up at coffee hour following Worship. The details shocked me when I learned them because they seemed entirely out of character. She was always honest about dealing with cancer. Some of those who hear news of her death will think that it served her right. Not knowing all the circumstance, I can't say anything for sure.

For a while, she was quite a pariah. Getting herself clean was completed successfully and she never returned to active addiction. She never hung her head in shame or acted as though there was anything about which to apologize. If it'd been me, I'd be much too ashamed to show my face anywhere. Her case can be seen as tragic or as a redemption story, and the decision, dear reader, remains yours.

No comments: