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Grace Notes: Sacred Spaces

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Air date: July 19, 2009

Grace Notes
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Two days before he died, I visited Jeff and his wife Mary at their home. For most of the years I had known Jeff and Mary his lymphoma had been in a remission. Our periodic office visits were as much an opportunity to catch up on career changes, travel plans and medical center scuttlebutt as to evaluate the status of his remission. Then a year before the lymphoma recurred. And then a month before, we discovered that it had invaded his heart. Jeff was dying of heart failure.

We sat together in the comfortable sitting room at the back of their large rambling Victorian on the east side of Indianapolis. Jeff was bent forward in his wheelchair struggling to catch his breath. I sat next to him watching the dusk slip over the storm clouds on the horizon. Mary sat across from us on the sofa, the ice in her glass clinking softly.

As Jeff’s breathing eased, Mary said "It’s happening pretty much how you said it would. But I... I can't stop holding out for a miracle. Jeff has. He’s accepted that he will die soon." I nodded. "What do you believe happens," she then asked. I was momentarily confused by the question. Did she want to review how Jeff’s life would end, what medicines she should give for which symptoms, or who she should call when he died? "I think nothing happens. We’re just dead like a handful of mealy bugs," she said answering her own question.

The questions we pose at our most vulnerable moments, in large part, have no answers independent of faith. In the course of my work, I witness a wide range of faith traditions or world views. My faith derives more from a sense of wonder in the commonplace than religious teaching and tends to expand or contract to accommodate the beliefs of others. It was certainly not robust enough to provide any words of assurance. So I remained silent. After a moment or two she gathered a few framed photographs from the shelf above her head and shared with me captured moments of renovation and travel from their lives.

I was there when Jeff died. As often happens, in my experience, Jeff seemed to look beyond, way beyond Mary and me, and then he was peaceful, the signs of his struggle no longer etched into his face. Like many people I find solace in the sweeping architecture of churches or temples. As I stood next to Mary I realized while we portray the sacred through the vaulted ceilings and stained-glass windows of sanctuary and the religious paintings of museums, it originates within the moments, joyous and sad, that we choose to honestly share with one another.

Mary accompanied Jeff step by step on a long and arduous journey knowing full well barring a miracle he would die. The space they invited me into was a space of great vulnerability bordered by the unknowable. I may have arrived as a physician but I remained as a friend. I think of it as a most sacred space.

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