The Guest House

mary

Mary, my Mother-in-Law

Another profile in the NY Times magazine, this one about a doctor who lost three limbs when in college and now tries to bring a “good death” to those who reside in what’s called the Guest House, part of the Zen Hospice in San Francisco.

“Good death” is something I thought about when I visited my mother-in-law, Mary, who lives in a memory care facility in Orlando. She has severe dementia and, after falling and shattering an elbow, was in a rehab that simply wasn’t equipped to accommodate patients with memory loss. We spent a weekend relieving Steve’s sister, Laura, who also lives in Orlando and is mostly tasked with her care. Observing Mary, in pain, in an unfamiliar place, in adult diapers, not remembering not to lean on her elbow, addled by medication, I wondered about sustaining life after the mind goes and the body breaks down.

By most yardsticks, hers is not a good life. Would a “good death” be a better choice? Simply put, it’s not a choice we can make and it feels like heresy even talking about it. And that is exactly what Miller spends his life working at: inviting death into our lives, our relationships, our conversations. He’s looking to “disrupt the death space,” a mission statement that sounds perfect for the Silicon-Valley VC community he solicits.

The article never links Zen Hospice’s “Guest House” to the Rumi poem, but I did, so here it is. Perhaps it’s something of a cliche to rely on Rumi for Life’s Big Ideas. But it continues to amaze me how the work of a 13th-century Sufi poet endures. (Some of his relevance is explained by this New Yorker article.)

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

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