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who serves whom?

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Sometimes I come home from hospice, feeling unsure of my contribution. At other times, such as tonight, I overflow with impressions, savouring the contact with people near the end of their lives, and sensing the deep purpose of my work. Courageous comes close to describing everyone’s demeanour–but even that word is too common-place to capture their struggles with pain, fear, and confusion. And what a team of nurses and volunteers: everyone pitching in, operating near the edge of capacity, cheering each other on in passing.

bones masterRather than relay further details–which are still too raw for cyberspace–I reach for a book I last read on a pilgrimage in Bavaria. In it, a “hedonistic” American poet accompanies his aged Zen teacher back to Mongolia to first locate, then bury the bones of that man’s teacher. Near the end of their journey the monk falls gravely ill. A 12-hour jeep ride takes them to the rustic comfort of a relative’s house. The following excerpt speaks of the intimacy and respect that arises whenever one person serves another.

“Tsan Tsai, we’re home. Can you walk?”
“Georgie. I’m sorry. Cannot. My legs tremble, I must be carry.”
I helped him from the jeep and he draped his arms over [his nephew and another man’s] shoulders. We carried him up the stairs. Thermoses of hot water were waiting. The two men turned and left.
“I tell them go,” said Tsung Tsai. “Too much worry. Anger. They don’t know my purpose.”
He drank a couple of cups of hot water, ate a handful of curing pills, and slumped down on the bed.
“Too tired, Georgie. Can you help me?”
He lifted his arms. I slipped off the jacket I’d given him on the mountain, his vest, and undid the ties of his robes, his tan cotton jacket and matching cotton pants, the lashings loose around his bruised purple shin. His underwear was soaked through. He was shivering. I pressed the back of my hand against his feverish, clammy brow. I wet a corner of towel with hot water from the thermos, sponged his face and cleaned the grit from the nicks and cuts, his black-scabbed knuckles, his big-bones wrists seamed with dirt.
“Kindness, Georgie,” he said. “So kindness.”
I started to help him into bed. “Enough!” he said, the old fire back in his voice. He pulled the quilts up his chin and closed his eyes. I turned off the light and left him, yellow watch cap firmly planted on his head.

source: Crane, G. (2000). Bones of the master: a journey into secret Mongolia. New York: Bantam Books, pp. 333-334.

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