. . . the painting that started it all
The self-portrait of me with my hands over my eyes and a misformed halo bending toward me is not an icon, but it is a very spiritual painting. The misformed halo was not deliberate, but the result of an eagerness to get my experience down in paint.
Its home for several years was on top of my upright piano sitting alongside an icon of a Guardian Angel and the 4th Day of Creation, all three images a product of my journey in lay ministry.
After we had closed down the Bethsaida Team (Life and Hearing Loss - Part 3), I looked for a more directly personal ministry and signed onto a Hospice Service as a Lay Eucharistic Minister. My introduction was swift. The day after I was accepted as a volunteer, my supervisor, the hospice service Chaplain, took me around to six patients, introducing me as the Lay Eucharistic minister who would visit them. Following the first visit where I offered the Eucharist to each patient, under the supervision of the Chaplain, we went back to the office to discuss my role more completely. That's when he told me he was going on vacation and would be gone for six weeks. He said that I had done well on the day's rounds and he had no doubt that I would be able to handle the responsibility. Although we had seen all six of the patients in one day, the regular schedule was different for each patient. He already knew that I would go on vacation, myself, for two weeks while he was away. Just tell them - the week before you go away - that you will return in two weeks.
Of the six visits, one visit brought home to me the seriousness of this ministry. I was introduced to a man who had entered hospice care that day at the very time that his wife who had been in hospice care was dying. It was a somber time, but calm. I spent some time introducing myself to the man I would visit weekly. His name was Vince. I performed the simple ritual of offering the consecrated wafer and wine and told him I would see him the next week.
I visited all my patients weekly up until the fifth week, when I was to tell each patient that I was going to Greece and would be back to bring them communion in two weeks.
When I entered Vince's room I found two people I had never met before and a very strained atmosphere. I felt a hostility coming toward me that stunned me. I introduced myself and explained that I was there to bring Vince communion
"He's already had communion," the woman said with seething.
I tried to find appropriate words for this stark surprise, but the only word that came were about my being away but bringing communion to him again in two weeks.
"I don't know how you're going to do that when he has only two days to live."
This news stunned me. I was speechless and left as quickly as possible. I got down to the parking lot, into my car, turned on the ignition and left for home.
The chaplain was still away so I couldn't call him. I called my friend - the deacon and chaplain - instead, to find out what I had done wrong - for surely I must have done something wrong.
"What?" my friend yelled into the phone. "Didn't the hospice service notify you that the man was dying? You're part of a team. They should have told you, not let you walk into a grieving family as if it were just an ordinary visit."
When the chaplain got back I told him what happened. He told me that there were siblings of the daughter who had been caring for Vince and his late wife who were opposed to either of their parents being in hospice care. "I'm sorry that you had to experience that, but you're ok, there was nothing you did to deserve any of that."
That was one of the worst experiences I had as a volunteer for the Hospice Service. But there was a completely opposite experience, the one that resulted in the painting above.
One of the women to whom I brought communion was 100 years old. Eleanor lived in an assisted living complex and was usually in bed or sitting in a chair in her room when I arrived each week. Then, one week I found her sitting outside in the sunshine. I had just returned from Greece, and we sat companionably side by side as I showed her my pictures and explained about the location and what action was taking place. Her favorite was the picture of a group of stray dogs on Corfu who, with much barking and self importance, led one of the bands in a saints’ day parade.
The following week I returned with communion and I looked hopefully at the seating area in front of the building to see if Eleanor was out in the sunshine again. Not there. I went to her room and knocked on the door. Her aide kept the door locked so there was usually a small delay until the door opened. This time there was no sound behind the door. I knocked on the door a second time and waited. No answer. Well, I thought, perhaps she is in one of the public rooms of the complex and went to look for her.
Eleanor was not anywhere around, so I went back to her room and knocked on her door a third time. A staff member came out of the room next door and asked: “Who are you looking for?”
I told her Eleanor. “Oh, I’m so sorry. She is not here. She passed away on Monday.”
I left the complex and went to my car, starting the engine. But I could not leave. I put my hands to my face just as the picture shows. I did not feel grief in the ordinary sense, but the sure sense that she had been released into eternal life. I felt enveloped by the divine and knew peace. Spiritually, it felt as if I were experiencing Easter in real time. (See the inset to the right to understand.)
The second experience confirmed for me, exactly why I signed up for working for those who were waiting to die.
But the painting is no longer on top of my piano.
On January 23, 2020 - just four weeks away from her 86th birthday - my sister died. Patricia Ann Evant - mathematician, programmer, Lutheran Pastor, artist - had been in a nursing home (a very good one) for eight years, brought down by dementia.
Her death was a shock - we had been told to expect a slow fading out, not a sudden death in the night. When she was still able to make decisions, she had decided on cremation. When my nieces reminded me, I assumed that her body would be accompanied by family to the crematorium. That was not to be, although I volunteered for the duty.
I do know that once a person has died, the spirit leaves the body. Nevertheless, it seemed such a lonely journey, for the body to be unattended. I thought of my painting and the death that had inspired it. Could that go int casket with my sister's body to the crematorium? I asked my nieces. They said it could.
When I arrived at the church for the funeral service, I found out that my neices decided to add some personal items along with my picture. I am so comforted that some things that were important to us and represented us accompanied my sister.
So, the painting - In the Presence of the Light of God - no longer exists. All I have left are images of the front and back.
Note: In this time of the Corona virus, we recognize that my sister's death occurred fortunately. Had she lived, she would not have understood why those people, her daughters, did not come and visit her any more.