Waiting for us, just as I closed the door of the truck with my drum and bag of rattles and tools, lay a beautiful, intact but empty bird’s nest. Around it were scattered many broken pieces of at least one eggshell. Most remarkably, the nest had been built around a pine cone that protruded from its side, but was blended integrally into its structure. Karen determined that it was a gift for the man we had come to visit. She took it gingerly inside with us….
I got a call last Friday from Hospice Austin Christopher House. A man – Ottowa native from Michigan – was in last stage cancer and was seeking a shaman. The wonderful social worker was doing her best to accommodate him, but didn’t know where to turn. By Wednesday afternoon, it had worked out that I was invited, though I am not Native American. I asked my colleague Karen to join me, and together we made our way there after sunset.
Hospice Austin is a part of the St. David’s system. The atmosphere is much more condusive to their work than a hospital, though it has a substantial technological support system. That it is part of a hospital system is unmistakeable, however the staff I met were clearly there to support and take care of their patients at this important transition time.
T’s sister met us at the door with a gift of tobacco. A concerned nurse joined us in the room, as he had been agitated earlier when we didn’t arrive when he had been told we would. And he was excited to see us. His excitement caused him some physical pain as he tried to move, but was unable. Seeing this, the nurse went to his side to provide more pain medicine, which took several minutes. She was being very careful.
We introduced ourselves to him and presented him the bird nest. I do not know how he was with this. He could not speak or move without pain. Yet his lack of agitation told us what we needed to know.
I told him my full name and that we were there at his and his family’s request to be with him for a while. Karen asked permission, then began to drum softly as I called the directions and opened protective space. I went to his side and asked permission to be with and pray with him for a while. I gently took his hand and touched his wrist on the “deepening” accupressure point.
Earlier in the day as I journeyed about what should be done, three things came up as very important. At the point of death, it is helpful to open the chakras (power centers in the energy field), and let them clear. In the energy healing process, this “backwashes” stuck energies and allows the chakras to spin smoothly. In the deathing process, it opens them to allow an easier disconnection of the spirit from the body as well.
A second issue is forgiveness. It is important to a smooth transition for the person to feel that everything is settled and complete, for them to know that they are free of the entanglements of unfinished business. This is an opportunity in the final moments to set everything in balance to the best of the ability of everyone. The moment of death is no time for holding old grudges, and a wonderful time for setting things to right.
And finally, the dying need to know that they have permission to die. They need to be assured that loved ones are taken care of.
T’s wife was described to me as “very fragile,” spending much of her time with him in tears. My sense of what was transpiring is that her pain and fear were holding onto him. Until she can find the strength to live without him, he will not be willing to pass on. In fact, he had been in this state for more than five days. She was not present with us that evening.
When the ritual was completed, Karen, the sister and I sat on the floor and talked. There were memories and stories, and laughter that she shared with T. We were certain that he joined with us, though he could not physically respond. He remained calm, breathing.
The sister walked with us down the hallway on the way out. We hugged goodby. She was in a good place.
The evening air was cool and refreshing.
This was on my phone answering system this morning, from the Austin Hospice social worker:
“I wanted to sincerely thank you and Karen so much for what you did for T last night and for his sister. We noticed and the nurse even noted in the chart that he became very calm, his respirations were calm and he stayed that way through the night. It really did make a difference for him even just physically. He is very, very peaceful at this time, using less anxiety medication, which is wonderful. I know that for his sister it was incredibly special.
“So I just wanted to let you know how wonderful that was and how much it meant to him, to his family, and to all of our team here. Thank you SO much. We sure appreciate it.”
T passed away a little before 5:00 am this morning, Friday May 2. His social worker said that after the ritual, he was very peaceful and his anxiety medication remained “way, way low.”
To T and his family, thank you for the honor to be with you.
[Originally posted May 2, 2008]