She was lying on her bed in the middle of the afternoon, semi-conscious; yet that part of her which remained aware of the world would rather that it were not. This dear woman was seeing out her final months in a netherworld of darkened senses; all, that is, save for the searing illumination of her pain. I watched as she gently clasped her hands, half in prayer for her release, half as if to echo her fragile frame’s arthritic deformation. ‘Please, please help me, I need morphine; please help’, she mutters. A nearby nurse strides across; ‘not until four o’clock Doris, we can’t give you any more until then’. Moments later a kindly volunteer carer approaches, sits beside the bed and whilst gently stroking the old woman’s head, offers up an incantation: ‘There now Doris, let my hand wipe away the pain for you; there now, just feel it dissolving, wiping it all away; there now, there now, it’ll soon be all gone Doris, I promise.’
Earlier in the staff canteen, I drink coffee to combat fatigue, gaze at forlorn looking Christmas decorations, and listen to a gaggle of trainee nurses gathered ‘round an adjacent table. Overlapping voices; muted shrieks of derision or exclamation as each vie for attention; the staking of claims upon the situation; self-conscious affectations learned rote from trash TV planting the flags of selfhood; oppressive vitality. Up on the ward, both my mother and Doris, their beds adjacent and parallel, their end days adjacent and parallel, sought none of what captivated these nurses. They needed the caring, the medication too of course, yet more so some trace of emotional solace found only in the gentle presence of another: one to be there fully, unreservedly offering attention. I have but seven days to live, perhaps only two; after which I sense at some level that I’ll never know human contact again – for eternity. Be with me now.
Many years have since passed, over which time I’ve sought to build on any small capacity I had to listen, to be there giving attention, offering presence. We can only truly offer presence once we know it with respect to ourselves. Presence is not merely the physical occupation of space; it is to suffuse that space with the wordless knowledge that we are here fully, attentively, whole-heartedly and beyond the overt contrivances of selfhood. It is an intimate knowledge we have of our being prior to the narratives we construct about who and what we are; and it is a gift we may give to ourselves at any moment and in any given circumstance. Having cultivated this generosity towards ourselves, we are then in a position to emanate this presence and so offer it to others too. Those learning to do so possess at all times a boon to offer the world, to loved ones, and to strangers in need. It is a priceless gift, one of great value.
Be with me now. As I said, that is what I shall want, and that is what you too will want, as we lay during our end days, adjacent and parallel in circumstance, adjacent and parallel in need. Prior to this, it may be that others we know will similarly have these needs. They may well not tell us as much, because they had yet to learn the nature of presence as regards themselves; and yet they instinctively know of their need for it; it is an animal instinct, a human animal instinct. Be with me now. That is a simple request; I can fulfil it absenting any verbiage, any pretence of doing the right thing, any collusion with my sense of obligation. If I am unable to offer presence to myself, if I sense the need for it yet cannot understand that need, how am I to offer it to others? Hopefully, there is plenty of time remaining for us both to develop this simple skill, to naturalise it within us, to make of it both a private and public sanctuary.
Whatever our spiritual inclinations, whether they may be present or absent, this is the time of year when our mind’s turn to the offering of gifts. Here, we invariably sense the weight of obligation, of being seen to do the right thing, both sensing others expectations and feeling our own in respect to offerings. I am unsure as to whether the onus of obligation may be entirely set aside, though I do know of one way in which we may ease the burden and know within ourselves that the right thing is being done. It is to offer our presents with presence. There is a rather beautiful Buddhist tradition of offering gifts with both hands; it is as if to say we hold nothing in reserve, giving freely, openly. To look the recipient in the eyes, to consciously envelop them with presence, this makes as if little the physical content of our palms, and instead makes as of everything the content of our hearts. It is a gift shared for eternity.