Faith and the Power of Letting Go
I’ve just returned from 10 days in Texas with the woman I have loved as a sister all my life. Mary Carol came with her younger brother to live in our home at 16 after spending 10 years in an orphanage. Her father (my father’s brother) and mother both died of cancer when she was six and her brother was just 18 months. Six months later I was born, so she was there as long as I can remember.
You kind of think life will go on forever until a certain age. You think that the people you love will always be there. You will pick up the phone to call and they will always answer. But they will not.
"I want to live."
Over the past three years, after an unexpected diagnosis of Stage 3 Ovarian cancer, Mary Carol fought a faith-full fight. She responded to her “death sentence” with courage and quiet determination. “I want to live,” she said every time the doctors told her the latest treatment wasn’t working and they would need to find something else. She gained three years of life through those treatments: playing her piano, lunching with her daughter, shopping with lifelong friends, choosing new lipstick colors, watching her grandchildren grow a little taller.
And then about six weeks ago, her attitude changed. This last time, with possible success rates so much lower, she finally knew she’d had enough. “I’m done.” So, all treatment medications were stopped, and she decided to move to hospice care at home. One by one her precious family accepted her decision. And she began a new phase of the journey.
How we learn to live.
Twice I’ve visited her in this process. I was there when she made that change. And two weeks ago I went back. She is in a hospital bed and does not leave it now. The first two days I was there she still enjoyed a bit of food. She found pleasure in my gentle foot massages. She was listening to music, her lifelong passion, and commenting on the news. But days later, her decline grew steeper. Her precious but weary body is slowing down. She has stopped eating. She drinks only enough to take pain medication. She sleeps almost all day. She is exhausted, and you can see that even to lift her arm is almost too much for her. She is retreating into solitude, reflecting on her life in order to let it go.
Two days ago, when I stood beside her, she could not take in my words. So I went to the head of her bed, rested my hands on her shoulders, laid my head next to hers and whispered in her ear. I told her she didn’t have to respond but could just relax. I told her that my mother and father and her mother and father are waiting to welcome her home. I reassured her that we who love her will all be okay and that it’s okay to let go. And I told her I love her. “I know,” she whispered. And that was all that was needed.
How do you define faith?
Mary Carol is a woman with a strong Christian faith, and it has seen her through a lot of difficult times in her 82 years. I, being one who has moved beyond the strict doctrines of my childhood religion, have had to learn to honor and respect her faith, even though she never quite understood mine.
The earlier decades of my life, I was caught in a cascade of emotional chain reactions. All my life, I felt that I had made space for the beliefs of my family members, but most of them had never done the same for me. One day, after the death of my own mother 26 years ago, I just let go. They never will. But I can still honor the path of faith they’ve chosen, as well as my own. It brings them close to the Higher Power – beyond all naming – that sustains them through the tough times. Life is hard, after all.
Today my faith uses different language. In fact, even as I’ve expanded my interpretation of and names for the divine energies of life, I have come to understand the faith of my childhood more deeply. Not rejecting it as I once did but expanding it. Opening the aperture to a wider view has shown that there are an infinite number of facets in the gem of universal truth… and that there is magnificent beauty beyond our individual, finite names for it.
Truth is always revealing itself...
... and we are always learning.
So these days I’m learning about faith and the power of letting go. Seeing Mary Carol’s certainty about what comes next and her peace about letting go to a new life without a struggle is a wonder. In these, her final days, I can see the strength of her faith to carry her across the threshold between this life and the next. So, when I prayed with her yesterday, I used her language, the language that would comfort her.
Because one thing is very clear. This is about her and no one else.
As the days went by, I came to know that it was time for me to go. We have always had a special relationship. But I knew that she needed to retreat into the love of her husband, her son and her daughter. They are the ones whose love she needs to feel most now. And so I came home yesterday. I’m living right now in two worlds… here with my own supportive and beloved husband and there with her as she slowly says farewell.
Life without limits.
It is a privilege to bear witness to anyone in this process. The veil is thin and the radiance of life without limits shines through it here. It’s the best reminder I know that, as hard as it can be, being here on Earth in human form is a privilege and each moment deserves our full attention.
So, here’s to your one and only life. May your faith, whatever names you use to name it, sustain you all the days of your life… until the day you too step across that threshold.
P.S. I wrote this article on April 1st. Two days later, Mary Carol stepped across the threshold to her freedom. We will celebrate her life on April 12th.