It sounds terrible but most of us have experienced times when in the midst of our difficulties it helps to know there are people worse off than us. We can all get caught up in our worries and challenges and feel overwhelmed by them and they can feel like a really big deal. It helps sometimes to get things into perspective, that ‘yes I’m having a tough time, but not as tough as others’. For me it stops the mind from going so overboard in anxiousness, worry and fear of what might be, or ‘this is all too much’. If I am feeling a bit sorry for myself, or feeling worn down, when I’m sick of all the worry, it helps to remind myself that things could be much worse. I feel a bit better then, lightened of my heavy load. It helps me come back to dealing with just what is in front of me, rather than being lost in obsessive, worrying thoughts of what might be and being in overwhelm.
I saw a news report on television about some Australian tourists who had been stranded in Pukhet Thailand for two days, but given hotel accommodation and meals, when their plane needed repairs. The man interviewed said ‘It’s been a nightmare’. This was at the same time we were watching night after night the terrible devastation after the big earthquake in Haiti. Compared to what was happening in Haiti, the man was in paradise being well taken care of, if he had stopped to do the comparison rather than being lost in his own personal drama.
When I was in hospital with my fractured knee/knee replacement/fractured femur saga, things were feeling grim, in fact the grimmest of my life. I was confined to bed, with my surgeon keeping saying “This is a very bad situation”. He was pessimistic, after seeing my porous bones in surgery, that the fracture would heal, particularly as it was so high on my thigh where it was difficult to stabilize the bone. While a suitable way to brace and support my thigh bone was being found, I was stuck in bed with only very careful small movement allowed for twelve days, made doubly difficult with my limited arm reach and limited neck movement. I was always getting sore spots from staying in one position too long, and unable to move to alleviate it much, discovering the delights of using bed pans, and dependent on busy staff who were only able to do so much. It was unclear how my future would be, whether I would have use of that leg again, if I would be able to walk, so the immediate future was scary.
Sometime in those twelve days I received a phone call from my friend Vasundhara, who had Multiple Sclerosis and lived around the corner from me. A feisty Irishwoman, Vasundhara carried deep wounds from a difficult childhood at the hands of a notorious Irish institution in the 1950s, who struggled with her demons, despite gaining immensely from the therapy and meditation in the world of Osho. She said to me one day “I hate to think what my life would have been like without having loads of therapy and learning to meditate. I’m not sure I would have stuck around.” She could be irascible, and had put offside numerous friends over the years, but she wasn’t ever that way with me, when we had our occasional cups of tea and catchup, as she tootled by my house on her mobility scooter. We could share our body stories with each other more freely than with other friends who we didn’t want to burden.
It turned out she was in a hospital not far from me, and she said “The back pains I’ve been having are suspected cancer around the spine.” She was due to have surgery imminently, and was looking for people to come and visit. It was difficult to talk because my voice was only just above a whisper, and she had trouble hearing me, but I could hear her and we had a laugh about being so close (a few kilometers away), both stuck in hospital at the same time, unable to visit each other, and I wished her well.
So when I was feeling down or distressed about my circumstances, I thought of Vasundhara who was facing a much more difficult situation than me, with less support, in a public hospital ward, while I was in my own room in a private hospital with a roster in place to manage all my visitors. Knowing she was in a worse situation I couldn’t get too carried away with ‘poor me’ and I couldn’t get really down knowing that. We promised to stay in touch and the next time we spoke was about two weeks later, when I had finally left the high care hospital and was much relieved to be at the rehabilitation hospital, with my room opening onto a tree-filled park, so I was making progress and on the mend.
The news from Vasundhara was not good, as a result of her high risk spinal surgery she was now paralysed, so there was no progress for her. When we talked she seemed to be handling a nightmarish situation really well and was in remarkably good spirits. She talked of gaining solace from listening to an audio of Eckhart Tolle’s book The Power of Now. She said “It’s been so powerful listening to Eckhart Tolle, I’m loving it. It’s helping me to stay in the moment and not be swamped by my situation.” I too had found coming back to the moment really helpful when my future was so uncertain and full of grim prospects. She was talking about making arrangements for care once she was out of hospital, as though she would be going home. Once again when I was having to hobble on the Zimmer frame to the bathroom with great effort, I just had to think of Vasundhara and know it could be a lot worse. It helped keep things in perspective for me, yes things felt challenging, but not as challenging as what she was facing, and I felt a little better, terrible as that sounds.
About six weeks later, after I had left the rehabilitation hospital and was so happy to be home, the news was that Vasundhara was on her last days at a local hospice, she never returned to her home. So I was finally home, able to sit in my small garden and soak up its greenness and the fresh air, relishing having my autonomy back. I was still fragile and vulnerable with my thigh bone not yet healed, facing a long year of rehabilitation ahead but on the path to recovery nevertheless, and there was Vasundhara dying, not recovering at all. I could only feel deep gratitude that I was on the mend, and heading in a positive direction, and I doubly appreciated my home and friends and all that I could now do in the freedom of my own home.
About a week after being liberated from hospital, the call came out from her close friends, to come one evening to gather around our dying friend. I didn’t feel up to going anywhere, particularly at night when I was still so tired from poor sleep all the time, but I knew that going to someone whose death was imminent was not something I could postpone. This would probably be my only chance to honour and say goodbye to my friend. So I went to a small gathering around Vasundhara’s bed at the hospice with my friend Apara, who took me in a wheelchair. Vasundhara was unconscious and being kept on high doses of morphine. There were ten of us, and we sat in meditation in the darkened room full of candlelight, taking it in turns to talk quietly to Vasundhara and hold her hand.
Giri came with his guitar and we sang chants and songs from the Osho commune, and between us created a sacred, beautiful space of love for our friend’s final hours. The harmonies were exquisite, particularly when we sang ‘Halleleujah’ to the notes of Pachabel’s Canon, and I felt Vasundhara was loving being surrounded by such love and sacredness. I was sitting a little awkwardly, as close to the bed as the wheelchair allowed, stretching to hold her hand, unable to sing with no voice but just being present and being in my heart, with my back to most of the room. At one point during the ‘Helleluejah’ what sounded like a recorder started playing along in perfect harmony to the singing. I couldn’t see who was playing behind me but with the voices it brought tears to my eyes, it was all just so exquisite. Later when there were only about five of us left, Apara said quietly ‘Did you hear the flute?” and I’m thinking “Of course I heard it”, and then the others were saying “Yes yes I heard it too”, and I said “What do you mean, who was playing?” And they said “No, no one in the room was playing”, but everyone heard a flute. I felt shivers down my spine as we all looked at each other, shaking our heads, smiling in amazement at this mystery, feeling touched by something exquisite, sacred and not of this world.
The next day Vasundhara left her body, and I remain so grateful to her for helping me get through a difficult time, by keeping things in perspective, to remember to be grateful for the blessings in my life even in adversity. It was such a privilege to, in a small way, assist her passage from this world, which is always an extraordinary experience, something I realized is an important role of close friends and family in each others’ lives. About a month later I happened to meet the nurse who had been taking care of Vasundhara that night, who was the sister of the hairdresser who came to my home, and she said “It was the most amazing night of my fifteen year nursing career, to walk in to that room with the candles, and the beautiful singing which rang out through the hospice, everyone there, both patients and staff, were touched by it.”