Last night at the meeting of our Palliative Care volunteer program, I began to read Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, Kindness, but could only get through the first line before the tears came.
“Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things…..”
The minute you are told, by a caring and thoughtful human who happens to be an oncologist, that you are now one of the many who have been called into the ranks of being a “cancer patient,” you have lost some things.
You lose control over your body and, if you follow the path of Western medicine, you give your body over to those who you trust have the expertise to cut you open, rearrange your parts, and put you back together again. Humpty Dumpty,–you too have fallen off of a solid wall and have been put back together—never to be the same, again.
Then you freely give your veins to those nurses who can skillfully access them. Your blood, the very marrow of your existence—is filled with medicines that some call poisons, certainly are toxins, in order to allow the mutant cancer cells to give up their unruly replicating.
And during THIS process you lose control over your body in ways you have never imagined possible.
You lose your sense of well-being.
You lose your identity as a healthy, vibrant person.
You lose your strength
You lose your capacity to take deep breaths easily as you walk up a normal flight of stairs.
You lose your identity with your body, because the body you once knew is different now.
You lose your sense of immortality, because once you have been given this diagnosis, whether it is large or small, stage 1 or stage 4, in situ or metastasized, it is clear now, that days and months and years and breaths are numbered by something much bigger than your mind can fathom, and although you do not know what YOUR number is, you know for sure that life in the body that your Spirit was born into, is limited and precious.
“…Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing….”
And so it goes.
But deep beneath the losses and the sorrows, there is still an incredible light that comes shining, because the kindnesses that are showered upon you during this time of darkness and loss and inability to truly grasp the meaning of your existence and the reasons why each of us must endure the sufferings that we endure—these are what matter.
I have been offered so much in the way of kindness, by so many in these last months.
The gift of learning to receive has opened my heart in big ways, in new ways.
And now, as I begin a three month “sabbatical” from working with others who are suffering, I am starting the lesson of what it means to give to my Self. To care for my Self. To care for all the parts that make up this whole. Body, Mind, Spirit, Heart.
I look to the heavens and I look to the Earth
I look to the Four Directions
I look deep within I look all around me
And Spirit, I am beginning to understand
Just a few of your ways.
And for this, I am so grateful.
by Naomi Shihab Nye
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
© Naomi Shihab Nye