Where is your calm?

As I’m writing this, my wife and I are virtually confined to our hotel in Japan, awaiting the arrival of Typhoon Hagibis. Forecasters predict record setting rainfall, up to 30 inches or so, and wind gusts approaching 150 mph. So the safety of the Tokyo Hilton is a refuge, a place of safety and calm (and a really good breakfast buffet!) in the face of the howling bearing down on us.

My Aunt Mildred was the first to show me the importance of safety and refuge. As she was dying from breast cancer she showed me where her place of calm was. She had suffered prolonged course of the disease, I remember her left arm being in a sling for years when I was young because of the swelling after her mastectomy. Later, in my medical studies and practice, I learned the hows and whys of things that I had seen in her, but she, without ever saying anything, taught me about suffering and storms, about disease and healing, about being a good doctor, about how the medical profession can fail despite its best efforts and intentions. Hospice was in its infancy in America back then but had certainly not gotten anywhere near Florida, Ohio, where she lived next to her antique shop, and where thankfully she was able to die. Thankfully, my uncle Dan, a pathologist practicing in Toledo, was able to do what now would be considered unethical now: he prescribed Dilaudid for her, though she was not his patient, so at least she had some pain relief.

Aunt Millie had a strong Christian faith with some charismatic tendencies, and at that time, during my college years, I shared that outlook. When I was home on breaks, we would sometimes go to prayer meetings together. I don’t remember any prayers for miraculous cure, though they might have happened. But I would later learn that healing often has little to do with curing.

When people are dying, there is usually a swirling storm. People come and go, indignity after indignity gets put up with, pain spikes and breathing gets short, fears can grow into agitated terrors. Thankfully, we’ve learned a great deal about medicines and techniques to calm the tempest, but it is still up to the dying one to find and enter their place of calm.

My last memory of Aunt Millie is from a college break. I drove to see her in the 1974 Ford Maverick that she had bought for me. She was bedfast and sleepy but able to talk softly. I read from her Bible, And I saw the holy city…coming down out of heaven from God… And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."

I looked up, and she was weeping. She wasn’t crying because she was in pain, or because she was sad, or because was leaving those she loved. Her tears were those of relief, she had found her refuge: she was going home, and she had been away for far too long.

In the intervening decades, my understanding of spirituality and faith, of health and disease, of thriving and suffering have and continue to evolve. Aunt Millie’s place of refuge might not be mine, though the image of death as home still has has considerable appeal for me. So, in the eye of the typhoon, where is your place of calm?