Thirteen years ago I visited Jennifer Sullivan, a hospice patient who could no longer communicate with her visitors. She was my beloved spiritual guide, a woman who loved life, finding joy and goodness in large and small ways. She approached her existence much like Maya Angelou described: The best part of life is not just surviving, but thriving—with passion and compassion, and humor and style, and generosity and kindness.
Three weeks after a lung cancer diagnosis, Jennifer took her last soft breath. What I remember most vividly about my final visit with her is how she turned her face toward death, doing so with gracious surrender. Because of Jennifer’s difficulty with breathing, she sat almost upright in bed. As she slipped into a coma, her hands rested silently on her prayer cushion which was placed on her lap. One could not help but feel peace in the room amid her awesome task of waiting for death to arrive. I did not know at that time the poem Jennifer had selected for her memorial card. Rabindranath Tagore’s words speak to a faith-filled life and the fruition of Jennifer’s thirty years in the Forest of Peace retreat center.
When death comes to your door
at the end of the day,
what treasures will you hand over to him?
I’ll bring my full soul before him.
I’ll not send him away empty-handed
the day he comes to my door.
Into my life-vessel pours the nectar
of countless evenings and dawns,
of numberless autumn and spring nights.
My heart gets filled with the sight
of endless fruits and flowers,
with the touch of joy and sorrow’s light and shade.
All the treasures I’ve gathered
during my lifelong preparation
I’m now arranging for the last day
to give it all to death –
the day death comes to my door.
This memory of Jennifer’s death surfaces these days because I am reading Daniel O’Leary’s Dancing to My Death. He wrote this powerful book during the last year of his life when colon cancer gradually destroyed his body. O’Leary’s reflections contain an amazing amount of inspiration and strength. This is a book to be read slowly and absorbed fully.
I suggest to anyone who enters into days that overflow with big demands and too many activities, to walk with eyes wide open to joy, living with verve and vitality, not taking anyone or anything for granted. Then, when death comes to your door, you will find the courage and wisdom to meet it in the way these two inspiring individuals did.
© Joyce Rupp