When I turned 50 a couple of years ago I had the feeling at once overwhelming and uplifting that I had reached a threshold, that I was standing on the doorstep of the rest of my life. It was not a venerable granite step before a brightly painted door with a polite brass knocker awaiting my announcement. It was more like standing in a busy hotel lobby amongst a bewildering bustle of people all coming and going in a commotion of intent and purpose while I lacked any clear direction. Still, I have always treasured those moments, of being poised on the brink of… something! Preparing to consciously choose a new direction is always exhilarating – be it blissful, just plain terrifying or somewhere in between.
I have encountered many thresholds in my life; leaving home and starting work, setting off alone for Africa, entering into marriage, divorce then remarriage. Becoming a parent is the most life-changing threshold I have yet crossed, with its twin gifts of challenge and joy. Both of my children were born at home. Healthy pregnancies and a wonderful midwife supported my choice to forgo the technology and drugs of the hospital and instead to follow the inner wisdom of my miraculous body that knew just how to bring a new being into the world. At home, even in the most tumultuous surges of birthing, I could find peace and feel the lovely holiness of the door opening between the worlds. I had the space I needed to fully experience the irrefutable beauty of a soul’s transition. Every race and culture on earth celebrates birth with rituals that honor the beginning of a life and most have equally strong traditions to mark the end of earthly life. That is the corresponding threshold of course, that leading out of life – death. It is the same door that opens, the same threshold that is crossed, just in a different direction. Yet, within our society, we seem to have lost our recognition of death as a direct consequence of life. Unhealthy and macabre attitudes towards death and dying are everywhere, from teen zombie and vampire fiction to Halloween monstrosities, while we are losing touch with our inner wisdom and the healing traditions of death ritual.
Death comes to us all. My father died after a long chronic illness, and my younger brother was killed instantly a motorbike accident. More recently a beloved family member, Alex, left this life in an incredible example of ‘passing’ with flying colors. Alex had survived Hodgkin’s lymphoma as a teenager and was an exceptionally warm, generous and spiritual man. He had been working in hospice for 18 years when he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of stomach cancer in 2009. Over the years that I knew him we had had many talks about death and about what might come next. Our conversations grew more spiritual as the cancer progressed and his final Christmas, spent with my family in Rhode Island, was the most meaningful I have ever experienced. Alex lived every minute of his dying and shared what he learned with all who were willing to accompany him on his journey.
Alex fulfilled the dream most of us have of passing away peacefully at home, surrounded with love. His grace throughout his transition made it possible for those of us left behind to experience a gift of holiness, a kind of loveliness that lends strength through even the most grief-filled of times. A few days after his death, some of Alex’s hospice co-workers visited his wife at their home in Delaware. Arriving at the house on a chilly, damp March day they were captivated by an ‘upside-down rainbow’ in the sky above the house. It was a circumzenithal arc, occasionally seen in northern latitudes when light is refracted through ice crystals high in the atmosphere. A rainbow smile from the heavens.
I keep a photograph of Alex’s rainbow smile on my kitchen wall as a reminder that, at least in the big picture of life, all is well. Shortly after Christmas 2012 another rainbow smile appeared in the sky, this time over my home in Rhode Island. It was a beautiful winter’s day that Alex would have loved and I felt so happy thinking of him being with us in spirit. A couple of days later a new friend was visiting and asked about the rainbow picture on my wall. After I had told her about the two rainbows I went to the computer to find some information she needed. At once I saw a message that a young woman I knew had died in an accident. As our community came together in that time of loss, grief and memorial, I was strengthened by my travels with Alex. The personal threshold I faced was clearing, I began to see that my path was calling me to work in end of life care. I decided to become a hospice volunteer as a first step to becoming a Soul Midwife.