Friday, July 29, 2011

serving life

I watched the new documentary, "Serving Life," on OWN last night, which is about the hospice program at Angola Prison in Louisiana. Operating since 1998, it's a program made up of inmate volunteers who look after fellow prisoners in their final days. Most inmates in the state penitentiary are serving life sentences and will no doubt die within the prison walls. The hospice allows these men to die with a dignity and connection that would have been denied them otherwise. Not only that, it gives volunteers - who have been convicted of robbery, rape, murder, etc. - the gift of expressing compassion and giving back. It was fascinating to watch. I think they have an awesome thing going on there.

The documentary followed four prisoners as they went through the application and interview process to become volunteers, along through their training and to the taking care of their first patients. Some prisoners are just so sick and in so much pain that they're literally incapable of taking care of themselves. It was hard to watch - so I can only imagine what it feels like to actually be there with the patients, lifting them, washing them, smelling the smells and seeing what they see, holding their hands and giving comfort as best they can. A few years ago, I visited my paternal grandmother a week before she died. While she was very weak, seeing her wasn't as striking or as haunting as what I saw last night.

One man in particular really got to me. Lying there in his bed, his eyes (what were they seeing?) and his mouth open wide, he had such labored breathing - gasping for air, it sounded like. They showed the man's mugshot from all those years ago. He was a convicted murderer. But looking at him there in that bed, there wasn't a killer to be found. I could only see a human being in pain. A human being on the brink of death. A human being, days, hours, minutes away from taking the steps that every single one of us will eventually take.

The dying men were revealed to be ordinary, transitory human beings. As were the volunteers who were taking care of them. All of these men had committed crimes. They had intentionally caused other people pain. They'd made mistakes. But here, as the process of dying and hospice unfold, their roles as criminals are washed away. Not that their good deeds wipe away the pain they caused or that all is automatically forgotten - but it becomes clear that they're something greater than their past. Karma or God or Consequence will take care of what's taken place before. But for now, in this space of hospice, judgment is set aside. Like one of the volunteers said, that could be him in that bed. It could be any of us. The day might come when we find ourselves incapacitated, totally dependent on those around us for our basic needs. Life is going to have Its way. What happens will happen. May we all be blessed to have that Love around us when we pass. I think it takes an extraordinary Soul to look sickness and death in the face - and offer Love like that, unflinchingly. These people really are angels. Murderers, afraid and hateful - oh, blessed time! All of us are capable of being redeemed.They are just like us, these criminals. They're humans that have made choices, some wiser than others - who are free to redefine themselves at any moment. Thinking of death isn't something I do a lot, let alone imagining dying from a terminal illness, but all is possible. Seeing this has made me think. I just want to say how awesome I think hospice and healthcare workers are for the work they do. Our planet is blessed to have them.

Not just the documentary itself, but its title, I love. "Serving Life." On the surface, it looks simply like prisoners taking care of other prisoner as they die - and they are. But if you look closer, you can see that it is actually Life (or Love or God) in one, serving the Life (or Love or God) in another - and vice versa. Namaste in action.

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