I spent last weekend in bed with my wife’s cousin Sandy, a 61-year-old woman with end-stage Parkinson’s disease. Her memory was failing, body shaking or sometimes frozen, and she was unable to swallow. Last week, Sandy refused a feeding tube, saying she did not want to be kept alive this way. It took her a week to waste away; the last five days she was completely unconscious.

I knew Sandy as a child at family gatherings, but got to know her well when she moved in with us as an 18-year-old. She came to Santa Fe after she’d been banished by her family; she never had an easy life. She stayed a couple of years, during which we came to love one another as real family.

She married her childhood sweetheart, a good, sweet man who shared her difficult history and has been devoted to her. We have shared the loss of parents and children. Elaine and I wanted to say goodbye to her while she was still alive, even if she was unconscious.

One is never quite prepared to see a loved one comatose, staring open-eyed, looking like a skeleton. For two days, her husband, daughter, Elaine and I lay by her side at one time or another. I told her stories, recalled incidents, and revisited the places we’d been. During this time, her beloved husband of 40 years comes in, looks at Sandy and says, “Isn’t she beautiful, look at her skin it’s still flawless.” I don’t know what he sees, because to me she looks like a Holocaust victim. But the longer I lay by her side, felt her warmth, the tremor of her aliveness and talked, the more beautiful she became. I saw the feisty teenager who hid behind the bushes with my daughters to ambush me with a garden hose; I saw the furious teenager who reamed me out after I locked her out for a curfew violation. I sang to her and watched her beloved Chihuahua jump on the bed to lick her hand and lips. In time, when I looked at her, I could hear her voice, feel her aliveness, and no longer saw her wasted body.

In that moment I came to peace with one of my greatest fears: dying ugly, approaching death mentally and physically incompetent, in helpless dependency. My fantasy has always been that like the Apache warrior of old who, when it was clear he could no longer keep up with the tribe, would walk away from the encampment to find a good place to die and sing his death song.

My love for her was so far beyond her wasted body that it made me think even in my decrepitude, I wouldn’t have to separate myself from those I love. The Zulu call such loving relationships “Uboontu”, which means “I am, because you are.” When you love someone that way, you always see them as beautiful.

On her last night, her husband and daughter painted her fingernails red, and I held her hand and we danced. I hummed the tunes, described the house on Spruce Street where we first danced, and laughed out loud. Even if my fate leaves me a wasted shell, and not the self-inflated warrior of my imagination, I want to say I’ll be happy beyond all words if I’m dancing with my Uboontu. I am because you are.

Last Mask of the Authentic Healer

Nov 30– Dec. 2, 2007
Franciscan Renewal Center, Phoenix, AZ
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“This unique, experiential workshop is designed for healers and
those who are interested in expanding their therapeutic repertoire.
In the language of ritual and ceremony, we will explore the many
ways you can magnify your healing power.
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