Ever since I attended this year’s Sisters of Earth Conference in July of this year, I have been singing the praises of Catholic nuns.
My admiration doesn’t just include how they put on conferences, it now extends to how they run institutions. For example, one eldercare facility in Seattle, Providence Mount St. Vincent.
West Seattle’s largest employer, with 500 people who represent over 29 countries of origin, this large facility, and the small, floor-based communities nurtured within it, has housed our folks for the past four months and continues to provide a safe, supportive, and comforting “nest” for Mom now that Dad is gone (see this and this and this).
Sitting high on a hill in West Seattle, Mount St. Vincent is the most astonishing “institution” I have ever had the pleasure, and the honor, of living within, first for one week, then for two weeks, and now again for nearly two weeks, as our large (eight siblings) family converged to bless Dad’s passing and help our 94-year-old Mom take her very first steps to independent living.
At some point (where?) I already talked about how Mt. St. Vincent integrates child care with elder care, for example, and other amazing initiatives (google “Mount St. Vincent exopermaculture” for many posts that touch on “The Mount”). But I don’t think I mentioned that most of the children in their care are those of the employees, many of whom work at The Mount as families, father and mother, brothers, sisters . . . From their colorful accents, I’d say that most of the aides and housekeeping staff are immigrants, their giant open hearts and flooding smiles and hellos continuously filling the already exceptionally caring atmosphere.
What I haven’t mentioned here yet is a ritual that we would not have known about, had Dad not died. And, as Kris, who was present and astonished that evening, told me, “It was so simple, and yet so powerful, so moving. . .”
Dad died in the early evening. For the next three hours, his body lay in state, surrounded by his children who live in Seattle. They came when called, to surround and pray over his body.
At that point the funeral people were called, to take the body away, since Kristin was concerned as to how it would affect Mom in the morning — what would it be like for her to wake up with Dad’s body still there? (She had been told that he died before she went to bed, and had kissed his still face again, a few minutes after her regular goodnight kiss had spurred his very last breath!).
Always, our decisions as to what to do next are made within the context of Mom’s mild dementia. We make educated guesses, at best. This was one of them.
By the time they came to take the body away, it was around 11 p.m., and Kris did not want to be there while they zipped it up and transferred it to the gurney. So she left, her head down, walking out into the hallway. . . when, to her astonishment, she looked up, to see a long line of nurses and aides standing in silence with a beautiful folded quilt and a candle.
After the body was lifted onto the gurney, they all filed into the apartment. By this time Kris was sitting down in a chair in the hall. Then, she tells, me, “they all filed out on either side of the gurney, with the beautiful quilt covering the zippered bag, and the aide with the lighted candle at the head.” In silence, and in reverence, this procession moved slowly down the hall, turned the corner, got onto the elevator, down to the first floor, and, still in silence with candle flickering, moved through the front doors out to the sidewalk where the hearse was waiting, standing there until the gurney had been placed in the back and the doors closed.
Not only is this the most enlightened and loving institution I have ever had the privilege to enter and become a part of, this community of souls also knows how to work with death, and dying, in a way that might give us all pause.
The sacramental character of death is fully honored here.