In the mid-1990s, I spent a year as a volunteer at Zen Hospice Project’s (ZHP) Guest House in downtown San Francisco, helping the four resident patients one day a week. During that time, I learned about loving kindness, or metta. Befriending two patients helped me overcome attachment, the near enemy of metta, and its far enemy, dislike, so that I could open my heart to all beings.
At the end of that year, I transferred to the hospice ward at Laguna Honda Hospital (LHH), where there were 28 patients. In my second year at LHH, I met Thelma. She was pleasant enough company until you got to know her, and then she became really frustrating. She could tell stories well, and initially I enjoyed spending time at her bedside. Then I noticed that her favorite story was not a happy one. It was full of dukkha, or suffering.
“It was the biggest disappointment of my life,” she pronounced, pushing strands of uncombed hair back from the side of her face. Personal grooming can be a good indicator of a patient’s mental state, and Thelma was a mess. “I worked for days putting together her birthday dinner, and when my daughter finally arrived, about time for dessert, she hauls that . . . thug in with her.”
Thelma had a pretty smile when she started talking, but now her face puckered into a scowl. “Disgusting. Grease in his hair, tattoos, and rings in parts of his face that turned my stomach. And they were obviously on something. Lily barely sat down before she stood back up and said she needed the bathroom. After they left— almost right after dinner—I never saw my pearls again. Can you imagine? Stealing from her own mother!”
Thelma looked right at me as if she expected an answer. I just raised my eyebrows. She went on: “How am I supposed to feel about that?”
“Well,” I said, hoping to help. “Have you talked to her about it?”
Thelma exploded. “Well, that’s when Lily decided I was at fault!” She shifted position in bed like a hen settling back on an egg. “She demanded I apologize to her! And she hasn’t spoken to me since.”
“So this was how long . . . ?”
“Four years ago,” Thelma snorted. “And she’s told everyone what a horrible mother I am to accuse her of it. I know she did it. It was her or that . . . man she brought with her.”
I sat back and contemplated Thelma’s problem in silence for a minute. “So you feel terrible that you haven’t seen your daughter in four years, but you can’t because she won’t apologize . . .”
“She thinks I should apologize!”
Thelma’s story broke my heart. I felt so much compassion for this woman, obviously tormented by her feelings of indignation and loss. It was clear to me which string could easily be pulled to untie the knot of her suffering. Wanting so much to help, I said, hesitantly, “Then why don’t you?”
Thelma drew back in horror. “I didn’t do anything to apologize for!”
Now I was the object of her wrath, but I just sat there while she pointed her finger and yelled, “I know what she did and it makes it worse that she won’t admit it. And then it’s even worse that she’s trying to blame this thing on me. Of course I’m not going to apologize! What for?”
I soon learned that most volunteers had already heard Thelma’s tale during her first week at the hospice. It was a story on a loop that seemed unable to go anywhere, ever. There were moments when I was tempted to blame Thelma for being so stubborn. That would have gained me some emotional distance from the unhappiness she was causing herself, but it would have left me with a tight and shrunken heart.
As annoying as Thelma’s clinging to her grudge could be, not one of us lost our compassion for her distress. There wasn’t a volunteer among us who wouldn’t have loved to find a way for Thelma to be reconciled with her daughter in time to die in peace. Our desire to help distinguished what we felt for her from pity. It is the nature of dukkha that it is caused by one’s own mental fabrications. If we felt compassion only for those wise enough not to indulge greed, aversion, or delusion, there would be no need for it.
Over the several months Thelma was with us, we volunteers came up with lots of strategies to break through her self-imposed dilemma. Most of our ideas would have worked for other, even marginally reasonable people, but not for Thelma. She had taken a stance, and although it was agonizing for her, she was not going to budge.
Her decline was slow but steady, and we all, even Thelma, saw the end approaching. She dipped into unconsciousness many times, in a gradual progression that encouraged her caregivers to renew our efforts to end the impasse between Thelma and her daughter. No suggestion that might allow them to see each other was acceptable to Thelma, though, even as her health failed and she began drifting off for longer and longer periods of time.
I was not surprised the week I went in and found her bed empty, but was bitterly disappointed when a fellow volunteer named Ed said no, Thelma had never resolved things with her daughter.
I shook my head. “Never spoke to her again, after four years . . .”
“Well,” Ed replied, “not really. But the day before she died, Thelma was delirious. Margaret was sitting with her and she says that all of a sudden Thelma sat upright in bed. That scowl of hers turned into a big smile. She looked at the doorway and said, ‘Lily, Lily, you came.’ Then she had several minutes of garbled conversation with the air around her bed. Whatever she said, those were her last words.”
I shook my head. “What a tough customer. But she couldn’t die without working that out, somehow.”
Ed nodded. “And she could only work it out that way, on her own terms.”
I sighed and shook my head again. “Wow. Did Thelma die peacefully, then?”
Ed grinned. “Margaret says she was still smiling.”
We looked at each other, and as I noticed tears in Ed’s eyes, I felt them in my own. Our compassion for this stubborn woman had left us glad for her, that she had managed to escape her resentment after all and find some peace before she died.
Rebecca Dixon has had a daily meditation practice since 1992 and taught in the San Francisco Bay Area since early in this century. In addition to her years with hospice, she has spent several years teaching meditation to incarcerated women and to the chemically dependent. A graduate of Spirit Rock’s CDL teachers training program, Rebecca is now a guiding teacher at two weekly sanghas in the Bay Area. For more information, visit her website.
This is the third in a series of articles written by Rebecca Dixon for Buddhistdoor on hospice work: read her earlier contributions, “Overcoming the Near Enemy of Lovingkindness” and “Opening the Heart to Difficult People.” The facts of these stories are drawn from the same material as a memoir in progress entitled Dreaming Rachel.