On the morning Hurricane Michael arrived in the South Toe Valley, I opened my email to find a request from a neighbor for help with the body of their loved one who had died the previous day. Could I teach them how to tend him in their home for a 3 day vigil?
With drenching rains streaming up the valley and the river rising rapidly, a flooded road between me and the friend with my manual from the training, and the absence of the death care kit the midwifery trainers encouraged us to purchase, I went to meet the first dead person who would receive my care. I found Jim Littlewolf on their screened-in porch with a cowboy hat resting on his face, a ‘how do you do’ salute to who he’d once been. His loved ones had already washed and dressed him, affixed dry ice in washcloths to his body, and enfolded him in a thermal reflective blanket to keep the cool in.
It was as much as they knew. The help they needed from me over the next three days was how to minimize the sensorial effects of decay in order to soften the experience for those coming to say goodbye, and how to support Jim’s work of transitioning from his body. They also asked for assistance in devising a plan to move him to the Celo Cemetery that minimized the risk of an unceremonious experience for either him or us. Yes I was anxious. Would I know and be enough without mentor, manual or supplies? Would my stomach turn rebellious when I touched the strangeness of a cold body? Would I find my interest had been insincere, an egoic desire to do what repulsed others? Would I hit the ‘on empty’ place in my well of caring, from giving mine away so frequently over the years?
In response to our voiced and unvoiced anxieties during June’s death midwifery training about our readiness for this work, our trainers from the Center for End of Life Transitions made a mantra of reassurance, “When you are asked to help, say ‘yes’. The way will be made clear.” Hold this mantra in your heart, and then wonder about the significance of an extreme weather event that usually limits one’s activities, and how it has coincided with a request from your life to show up in a big way. For the one whose soul eye has already peered over to the other side and gotten a fix on its beauty, saying ‘yes’ with a hurricane approaching could mean slipping on out while the air is still clear and peaceful. For the initiate to the shamanic work of helping usher that soul’s eye from its body, saying ‘yes’ to the ferocity of a hurricane’s wind and water energy could mean rising with it, and funneling it right into your courage. For the loved ones of the person gone on, saying ‘yes’ to the cold front that pushed out the hurricane and changed the seasons, could mean allowing the comforting warmth of your old idea that surely death care should be someone else’s work, to be supplanted by the chill of not yet fully understanding why you are doing it.
We said ‘yes’, each in our own way. We cared for Jim’s choice by supporting his last tasks, and our efforts of helping evolved in these ways. We reconfigured how the ice was packed to achieve maximum cooling, replaced a foam mattress with a body board and cotton blankets with a shroud, added ties to the board so that it could be lowered into the grave and his body secured to his shroud of quilts. We were hushed in gentleness, respectfully explaining what we were doing, encouraging him to ignore our intrusions and focus on his rising work. We did tell him on the last day that it was his last day, that he would soon reunite with the earth. We did gift his Comanche and Catholic lineages with rituals to honor each. We did cleanse and bless the artifacts now accompanying his spirit to its next destination–the silver belt buckle and rings he’d encrusted with turquoise, the wooden staff he’d carved, the photos of family who were receiving him, the prized Comanche ribbon shirts worn in ceremonies.
It took thinking, it required collaboration, it needed sensitivity, it asked for faith that this all mattered somewhere, somehow. It did not require a kit. There were enough supplies. It did not require much money. What we needed appeared. It didn’t take much explaining. We had three days, in which the attentiveness and care we gave a man now dead, made visible our belief that those who loved him could and would continue to abide in their relationship with him.
We said ‘yes’. And because we did, the weather did transform us. The experience, it did strengthen my resolve. The grave, it did embrace the goodness of Jim. And the consequence of this at-home vigil, it will continue.
From ‘yes’ we know. We are more than ready for the work that needs us. Our own death, that needs us. From eyeing our ending with the equanimity of acceptance, we enter the doorway through which we can be transformed. We dig deeply into the miracle of being alive. The floodgates of our compassion open.
I’ve become a death midwife from the practice of turning towards what waits for me. With many others in death care work, I am taking back the sacraments of care from a profit-driven system that would bankrupt us to receive them. The distress of the people and a planet abandoned and abused by that system are a rising hurricane that refuses ‘no’. When asked for your heart and hands, say ‘yes’ in the ways that you can. Have faith. The way will be made clear.