When by some good grace we enter into our elder years, we begin to search for those who might help guide us into ways we might surrender our lives at the end. In a world of mechanized and computerized physical care, we find it difficult to learn or perform the ars moriendi, the art of dying, of previous ages. This is not merely a matter of foregoing expensive extraordinary measures to prolong life, but of opening up a greater Life in the process of losing our own. In recent years I have been blessed by those who gave me glimpses of this art of living as their bodies gave up what we call life. It is the phone call from a hospice bed to say they love us. It is the last visit in the nursing wing when laughter bubbles up from deep inside the vanishing vehicle of a great spirit.
On April 19 I received this gift from my old friend Hattie Polk, who lay dying peacefully, detached from the tubes and wires that might have sustained her 95-year old body a little longer. She had decided it was time to leave us. She wanted to say goodbye to old friends. I was next to last on her list. We spoke of how she had helped us launch our book of stories about the beauty and importance of gay and lesbian people in our midst, a book that has gone around the world with its message of reconciliation. Our short sentences roamed around memories of church, of projects and meetings, and of people important in our lives.
As I held her hand she told me she was seeing a beautiful peony before her, opening its petals to receive her. I have tried to put this experience into words:
Hattie leaned into God’s garden gate.
Looking over the weathered wood and iron
She saw a peony, she told me,
Opening its smile, its arms,
Surrendering its sweet bouquet,
The ants receiving its libations to the sun.
She smiled, she laughed, she opened up her arms
As it embraced her in a love
That filled the whole garden.
She danced into its warm embrace exclaiming
Peony, sweet peony!
Hattie’s life went into a greater transcendence a few days later, leaving us a gift of joy, grit, and delight in seeking a greater justice than we can ever imagine. Each of us struggles with the art of our own future dying. Let us be thankful for the cues, the scripts, the choreography of such a one-time dance that others offer us as we approach that time.
Thank you, Hattie.