The Gift of Presence

Tonight Marc and I finished up Season 3 of Call the Midwife. It is truly such a good, moving, and inspiring show. And I love that in this last episode they brought in some of Jennifer Worth’s interest in care of the dying. (Her book “In The Midst of Life: Is There Such a Thing as  a Good Death?” was so inspiring for me to read a few years ago when I first discovered my interest in palliative care.)

As we watched tonight, I was reminded so vividly of a moment in my own life. In the last episode, Chummy’s mom is sick and old Sister Monica Joan is ever-present in the room with her. Sister Monica Joan throughout all of the series has exhibited signs of senility. Her actions are not always “helpful.”  But in this episode she was simply there, offering her presence. And she did it because, even though she was so often unaware of her surroundings, she recalled that she also had said good-bye to her mother and in a way she wished could’ve been better.

And seeing her there, in the background but present, took me right back to one night in our trailer — exactly 3 years and one month ago.

It was in 2011 on the Sunday before Marc was to start a week-long intensive course that we found out his dad was very likely dying, and Marc struggled to make the decision to start the class the next morning, or to wait for confirmation from the doctor and possibly a better understanding of how soon he would need to be out there. He managed to make it through the entire class.

A friend suggested that I go along with Marc for the trip out to Summerland to see his dad.  We had no family with us in Manitoba and I just assumed that it would not be possible. Truthfully, because we had no family to help us, I hadn’t even thought of it at all. But this same friend also offered to stay with our kids for the weekend so that I could join Marc. And I did, and I’m so thankful.

We had a flight booked for Friday afternoon. Marc would only miss the last few hours of his week-long course. And I had a return flight booked for Sunday evening so I could get the kids back to school the next week. Marc’s dad passed away in the early hours of Monday morning. It felt like I was — because I was — barely home when Marc called to say that his dad was gone. And two days later the kids and I were on another plane for the funeral.

It all seems like a bit of a whirlwind, especially when I think of just how much happened in a few days.

But I have two memories of wonderful peace from that weekend.

The first is the Thursday night before Marc and I flew out to be with his dad. The suitcase was packed. The kids’ lunches were made, and they were settled into bed for the night. I remember the lights were dim in the trailer, and there sat Marc and I with two of our friends: Amanda and Rebekah. I don’t remember what we said. I don’t even remember talking. But I remember them being there with us.

So why is this significant? Why is that quiet hour of which I remember hardly any specifics so significant? Why does it still bring tears to my eyes? Because those two friends — who in the months that followed became dear, dear friends — those two girls had each lost their fathers. Of all the two friends to come to be with us that night. It was those two. I don’t know why they did, or why it was both of them. But the fact that they did, and the fact that they both did, means so very much to me.

The other memory I wasn’t going to share. I had truly just wanted to tell the story of Amanda and Rebekah. (I have been meaning to for years!)  But as I started to think about that weekend of travel and family and saying goodbye — of so much busyness — I remembered another peaceful memory.

Sunday morning — the last day that I spent in Summerland that weekend, Marc and I his brother wanted to go to church. So I stayed at the nursing home with Marc’s dad for the whole morning on my own. I swabbed his mouth, and I held his hand, and I sang him a few hymns. But what I remember most of all was reading  him the Psalms. I remember picking out the hopeful ones and purposefully omitting the fearful and vengeful ones. It was a beautiful sunny day and I just kept reading and reading. I’m not sure how much of it he heard. And what he heard, I don’t know how much he understood. It’s quite possible that morning of quiet was more for me than for him. But it was peaceful and beautiful, just to be with him — the father-in-law I only got to spend a decade with — for that morning. And that will stay in my mind forever.

And it reminds me again of the wonderful gift of presence for all involved. To simply sit and be near in those moments of life. Those moments: the, usually unexpected, moments where we are reminded again that we are human beings and beautifully vulnerable.

When we give the gift of presence in those moments, the fear and confusion is suddenly alongside care and compassion. And, if we’re lucky a little bit of the peace and love of the moment can be felt right there. But if not then, I, for one, am grateful that now I see what a beautiful gift of love is given in those moments.

And I feel the peace of them forever.

So, thank you, thank you, Amanda and Rebekah. With tears in my eyes and from the bottom of my heart for that beautiful, simple gift that you gave.

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