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Recently we experienced one of the most profound experiences of aging, which few people talk about: visiting a friend teetering at life’s threshold, staring into the mysteries beyond.
Some might view this as a depressing reality, but in many ways, a moment of compassionate connection with a friend at death’s door also invites us to contemplate the spiritual intersection we will soon face in our own lives.
We had this kind of meaningful encounter when we went to visit a dear friend in hospice care. Her days on this Earth are numbered — like all of ours are — but in her case, that number has winnowed down to only a few, and she’s approaching the great divide.
Sorrow not if, in these days and on this earthly plane, things contrary to your wishes have been ordained and manifested by God, for days of blissful joy, of heavenly delight, are assuredly in store for you. Worlds, holy and spiritually glorious, will be unveiled to your eyes.
These few brief days shall pass away, this present life shall vanish from our sight; the roses of this world shall be fresh and fair no more, the garden of this earth's triumphs and delights shall droop and fade … and to this the wise will not anchor his heart.
Abdu’l-Baha, the son and successor of Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha'i Faith, advised us not to anchor our hearts to this world, which will soon pass from our grasp. He gave us a glimpse of the purposeful spiritual reality awaiting all of us after we depart from this temporary physicality, in a 1912 speech at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois:
Through his ignorance, man fears death; but the death he shrinks from is imaginary and absolutely unreal; it is only human imagination. …
The conception of annihilation is a factor in human degradation, a cause of human debasement and lowliness, a source of human fear and abjection. It has been conducive to the dispersion and weakening of human thought whereas the realization of existence and continuity has upraised man to sublimity of ideals, established the foundations of human progress and stimulated the development of heavenly virtues; therefore, it behooves man to abandon thoughts of non-existence and death, which are absolutely imaginary, and see himself ever living, everlasting in the divine purpose of his creation.
Yesterday we had a chance to hope for our friend’s freedom as she faced that threshold of sublimity, ready to carry with her only the spiritual virtues she had honed and pruned in her lifetime.
First, you should know something about our friend. Delia has a fiery, animated, laughing spirit. She’s always been spunky, full of energy and ideas, out-swimming her grandchildren almost until the age of 80. She frequently defied tradition for the sake of conviction. She dearly loves the Baha'i Faith and has devoted her life to its teachings. A white woman with traces of Indigenous ancestry, for her entire adult life she has especially cared about how human society has treated people of color. She spent much of her life on this plane of existence working to rectify injustices, noticing how people interacted when they truly reached across barriers to see into one another’s souls. She often spoke up for the unheard voice.
If you met Delia, you’d immediately like her. If you did already meet her, you probably also remember that she was grounded in the practical world, baked a divine homemade chocolate cake, and created incredibly artistic quilts.
In this last stage of her physical life, Delia has lost the ability to speak, so when we visited, she let the intensity of her gaze communicate for her. Now as her body winds down and her soul prepares to undergo that second birth we’re all destined to experience, we can only guess what transpires in the coalescence of mind and soul that lives behind the windows of those deep-set eyes.
After a stroke, Delia has spent her last few years in a large nursing home, where she can get the care she needs. In room after room lining its long hallways, she’s surrounded by her elderly peers, people also in their final days or months of this physical reality.
When we visited two years ago, the music of joyous holiday gatherings and afternoon socials filled the large dayroom there — but today’s hushed gathering spaces and carefully monitored and masked visits tell the story of COVID-19 and its massive impact on the elderly population. We felt moved by the ever-greater commitment and caring of the attendants. Each one had tenderly ushered their patients through the pandemic with kindness, dignity, and grace, cognizant of the profound transitions they had the privilege of witnessing, but sensitive to the need to let nature take its course without inflicting premature pain or suffering on guests and their families.
Facing Delia behind a wall of Plexiglas oddly suggestive of a prison setting, we realized that no barrier could come between her essence and ours. We met her gaze with whatever words of comfort she could hear. We said Baha'i prayers and saw her close her eyes and squint at some points, deeply immersed as we uttered the words:
Help me to be selfless at the heavenly entrance of Thy gate and aid me to be detached from all things within Thy holy precincts.
As this prayer ended, the light shifted to illuminate her cheeks, wet with tears.
Delia looked up at us after each prayer with a pondering expression. Was it anticipation? Questions? Wonder? Longing? Then her eyes refocused a bit, as if looking into a distant horizon and seeing much farther than we could imagine.
At last, we held her gaze as the smiling attendant came to speak tender words to her and wheel her away. We waved and she returned the wave, again, with only her eyes.
We each felt mixed emotions as we left the nursing home. We had no wish to make our transition to the next word any time soon — our to-do lists are much too long – but one of us remarked that we could remember being in a hospital bed just a few years ago with a healthy Delia in the visitor’s chair, busily setting the example of service to the sick. Close to death at that time and feeling its strange attraction, the words of a prayer had been rumbling through our hearts and jumped off the page of the open prayer book:
O my Lord, my heart longeth for Thee with a longing such as no heart hath known.
As we recalled those extended hospital stays years ago, we remembered the close relationship of caregiver and patient as an act of service that tethers one to this world a little longer and cinches the purposeful bonds of earthbound love. The look on Delia’s face now became recognizable as a reminder that until the very end, we each remain here to sustain meaning for one another. Some must prolong the pause at the threshold, seemingly to invite others to embrace that purposeful act of giving, even as the one in the center turns her vision of divine love to the world beyond.
When one day we complete that immortal journey across the Rubicon we all must take, we hope to be so lucky as to leave people who have felt our love and expanded their own capacity to love as a result. We also hope to envision, clear-eyed, whatever our friend is seeing right now as she gazes beyond us into the purpose-filled mysteries beyond.