Bob Sh’mal Ellenberg
908 NE 115th St.
Seattle, Wa. 98125
The others left at 6:15 p.m. I came to the house to relieve Lynn for three hours while she went to a Buddhist meditation class and Mary, Bob’s daughter and her husband Tom were going out for something to eat. They would all be back around 9:00 or 9:30.
I sat in the living room for fifteen minutes reading when it came to me I should be in the bedroom with Bob, who was in his last days. I along with three others had been Bob’s caregiver for the past year and we had midwifed him through some hard times; we all knew he had little time here. At 89 years, now down to half his 180 pounds, we were expecting his transition for many weeks.
I went into his bedroom where Mary and Lynn, who was one of the other caregivers, had been helping make him comfortable just before I arrived at 6:00. As soon as I came into the house, Mary took my hand and asked me to come and say hello to Bob. Well, he was, we thought, asleep, so I said hello anyway and we all left his room.
As I sat down next to him, at 6:30, looking at his emaciated face, his mouth hanging open as it had been while he slept for the past few weeks, it only took me a few moments to realize he had left his body. Even though, I had to keep checking him to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating, as I would keep seeing slight movement of the sheet over him. I even pulled the sheet off of him at one point to rest my hand on his chest; with the sheet off, I saw a slight pulsing just below the center point at the tip of his rib cage.
When I was finally convinced he had left or actually was in the process of leaving his body, I felt it was my place to help him with this transition. I try to be comfortable with this stage of life, since I have been with a number of people just before, during, or just after they take their last breath. It‘s a gift I brought into this life.
After being with so many, I should have a better grip on what is going on, but how can one. Some say we come alive when we leave this body as our spirit, soul, that part of us that remains alive after this body goes returns to source. Other are convinced that when you’re dead you’re dead: End of story. It’s a hard one to really be convinced of, on any score, since we only know, maybe, after we have left this plane.
As I sat with Bob in those special moments, as I had done in the past, I tried to concentrate on helping clear away all the disturbing influences that were preventing him from having a peaceful dying. He was a tormented man, especially the last two weeks with screaming and yelling in his sleep, calling out for help. This had actually been going on, to a lesser degree, in his sleep, for months, but now his screaming was very intense. It wasn’t easy to hear a person we know, who is going to be dying, screaming out, yelling, “help me, help me.” Mary as well as her sister Kathy had both experienced these episodes, as I had, especially, on the weekend just prior to his last breath.
There’s a Buddhist prayer for people who are leaving this plane, especially for those suffering, called Tonglen, which I had been doing for Bob off and on for those many months. Who knows how long he’s been suffering, maybe since he was on one of the ships bombed in Pearl Harbor during the bombings? I questioned if that was what his yelling and screaming was about, his calling for help, having imprints in his memory of helping pull men, boys really, out of the water, some dead some alive. I can only imagine or maybe, more real, can’t imagine what that was like.
For months, in the morning of my two and three day a week, 24 hour shifts, I did what I could during my regular meditation, while he was in his bedroom right on the other side of a wall, me trying to help clear away some of the dark mist that I felt surrounded him, maybe inside and outside. In the end, it’s sad to say or think, it felt like demons were pursuing him, just as Buddhism teaches. I did what I could to take some of that misty darkness into myself and transpose it into light, sending it back to him.
Now, here I was with his life force, soul, spirit, consciousness, actually leaving his body. I rubbed his crown chakra on the top of his head, a Hindu belief to help those energies leave the body from that point. With different practices I wasn’t confused; only wanting one thing: that he should be at peace.
The very next day, I was with another man, doing my first 24 hour shift as I did with Bob. I totally lost myself or forgot Bob, in wanting to help this man on this first day. That evening, standing in this new man’s kitchen, (odd another Robert,) after I had just attached jangles to his walker for him to shake and wake me during the night to help him with a hand-help urinal, I heard bells. Bob, who had passed the night before, had Xmas bells on his walker for the same reason. I knew they didn’t sound the same, but immediately made a dash to Robert’s bedroom and saw him in deep sleep. I went back to the kitchen and again heard the bells and knew, believed, Bob was letting me know he still needed help. (In the morning I looked outside the kitchen window on the deck and saw no bells and heard them one more night, but never heard them again in my three weeks now at Robert’s house.)
With no doubt in my mind, I went into the room I was going to be sleeping in and put on my prayer shawl and cap, the same ones I wore for a year during my meditations in what was Bob’s office, and sat and prayed, concentrated, meditated, being with Bob in spirit, where he was, where I was, again, doing what I could to ease his pain. I’ve done this sacred dance for a many, always a bit uncertain of what is the procedure, but yet knowing from what I have read, heard about, intuited. I felt I was with him. Imaginal thinking, who knows, but I trust in the higher parts of me, knowing that connections are made between people and other sentient beings on various levels from various distances while in the flesh. I know there is more. In the next few days I made different connections with Bob and then, at some point, those particular connections, began to diminish.
Kathy and Mary, were doing the same, maybe the other caregivers, all four of us, including the hospice nurse, all have different spiritual practices. We caregivers weren’t hired by the agency that employed us because of our spiritual beliefs, I don’t think, but here we were with this man, helping him during a very difficult time of his long life.
I sat with Bob for 90 minutes, when Mary and Tom returned. Mary came into the bedroom and I told her that her father had left this plane. She had some tears, only some, since so many had flowed off and on for months.
I knew this man for just a little over a year, coming for my first visits right after Obama was elected and was taken aback that whenever Bob saw our new president on TV, he’d rant, vitriolic, “that’s not my president, impeach him, how can this be.” I kept my mouth shut, wanting to keep my work, to help him and his three daughters, two of which I worked with very closely for the next 12 months. Some months later, when he said he didn’t vote for Obama, I had to tell him “I did.” But now knowing him better and having to trust, I said, “Bob the times are different it’s 2009, look, even women are holding major offices.” He seemed to wanted to have a grasp of what was going on, but had other battles that took his mind off of the world.
Notes on Bob
11/10/09 Two weeks prior to Bob’s leaving this plane.
Something happened in my meditation at Bob’s house this morning. I had an insight that when someone who I have been caring for dies, they take part of me with them into the afterlife. This came to me as I sat and contemplated Bob and his fragile condition and how close he was to dying.
I questioned whether this is possible, also knowing that more goes on than I am certain and familiar with; if something of my being is with a dying person can they, if they choose, take that with them, bringing part of me or anyone into that realm? I looked a bit deeper into this as I sat, considering all those I have been close to who have left this plane and what my continued connection can possibly be with them.
I am thinking, believing now that this is true. Not only is part of them remaining with me as I am living in this consciousness, but the consciousness of the departed one, maybe is exactly the same as on this plane, and they are maintaining some of what they experienced in human life.
And now as I write, I realize I would do the same: Taking with me my thoughts of those I love and who have helped me. This is no brand new thinking, but I never really considered this as poignantly and as real as I am in these moments of writing.
Bob is in bed almost next to me, only separated by a wall, him in the sleep state he goes to. He doesn’t share what his yelling is about, or what his nightmares are, but the caregivers, hear him making a variety of disturbing sounds during his sleep. He’s never shared with any of us, as far as I know, if he does travel over. He has been close for an extended period, or so it seems. When I suggested to him that Jesus is waiting for him, he gave me a classic Bob line, “he’ll have to wait.” Maybe he’s not so close. Maybe we are only perceiving him to be close to death, since in actuality, he hasn’t left this plane, even though everyone thinks he’s been on the edge of leaving. And he is, only the edge is a wide edge and his fear or uncertainty, is keeping him here.
I suspect, there is more of what we don’t know about dying than what we do know, since, in fact, what do we know? Maybe Shahabuddin, a Sufi teacher, who will be leading a death and dying four day intensive workshop in ten days, will give more insight into this.
I look at this whole process with Bob as something I was brought to, in order for me to learn something more about the dying process. I shared that with Bob’s daughters about this learning process we are in. I certainly have thought this, wrote this, and now can add another dimension to my understanding about death and what I am learning from being with the dying.
Lately I have been viewing my self in space during my meditation sitting. The new insights I’m having blend with these views from above as I feel part of me outside of me. Nothing really new here, only seems more poignant, as I was preparing myself for Bob’s leaving.
Having this insight this morning was good, but now, late at night, it disconcerts me a bit because if it’s true, than what I’ve believed about guardian angels and other beings with us, now I am understanding, believing, we are with those who have left this. It feels to me more real, a truth. It is in consciousness that we are all one.
November 22, 2009 Two days before Bob leaves this plane.
I’ve been doing my usual two 24 hour in a row shifts. Missed last weekend attending the death and dying seminar with Shahabuddin. We all feel that Bob could be, should be in his last days. He’s baffling even the hospice nurse, Bev, who has worked with, helped, hundreds pass on from this plane. I’m an ingénue compared to the work she has done. He is getting closer. Kathy told us she had a good talk with her father ten days ago about this, his condition, “not being the flu” and this opened Bob to talk about his feelings about leaving, him getting it, finally, and wanting to make sure his estate, house and monies were secure and to used for the grandchildren. And that someone will take care of Shadow his cat.
Although the caregivers, daughters, the hospice nurse all knew for months Bob was getting closer and closer to leaving the plane, he kept telling us, “I can’t wait for this to be over.” Not that he would be dead, but back to his old self. Having been a controlling person for most of his life, he had hard time accepting he had little control over the dying process.
So he only gets it somewhat. It’s momentary. Today, when I was helping Bob stand to pee in the hand held urinal, I pointed to his feet that are turning purple, asking him if he knew what that meant, he said, “I don’t want to know.” Two days away, with a sign he still wasn’t ready.
I sat in his room two times today while he was awake, at one point, reminding him I was a minister. (I was finally feeling it was time to minister to him; to help him in this end or beginning, process.) He was laying down and his hands automatically went into a prayerful position. It gave me a good feeling since I honor the Alliance of Divine Love that helped put my consciousness into a framework of being called upon to do this work. I had been involved with dying before my ordination, but it took on a greater meaning after my ordination, especially in working with the homeless and being the chaplain for the HomeVan. A long other story.
As he lay there with his hands in prayer over his chest, I told Bob he had nothing to fear. He said, maybe with sarcasm, “that’s good to know.” A few minutes earlier, when I was in the living room, he called out two times, “help, help me.” One time he may have had a dream. He wasn’t sure what had disturbed him, but this opened up for a brief talk about here and what follows. He said he had a fear, but wouldn’t say of what, that’s when I told him there was nothing to fear. That’s my belief.
He’s been on more morphine; the nurse, stopped the percocet, for a stronger medicine to relieve the pain of his body and of his mind, which may be more disturbing to him than his body pain. Who knows? He’s not getting out of bed now. His legs are too weak to hold him up, although I helped him stand so he could pee easier with the hand-held urinal. Once I helped him to the potty chair, right close to his bed, although Kathy doesn’t think it’s safe. It’s all touchy. She doesn’t feel secure with his legs against the bed for support, his feet on the floor holding the urinal. I found this easier for him, but I’m a bit stronger than she is, so she had him sitting up in bed with the hospital bed supporting him and her holding the urinal, but at least then, he wasn’t able to urinate. His pee is so dark with so little fluids.
This evening, I was trying to help him accept this transition that was so, so, close. Helping someone leave this life: Is it my business? Yes, it has been. He’s suffering; maybe afraid he will be suffering in the next life also. He wouldn’t talk about it, even though I left an opening for him if he needed too.
Suffering, suffering. What can we do about all the suffering people experience in this life? Not much unless someone is ready. It is the way of the life. We all have our share in one form or another, but, as Buddha taught, there are ways to alleviate it by understanding the causes of suffering which have a lot to do with our attachment to life and our expectations. I put it in simple words to Bob this evening; he sort of acknowledges these truths, but hasn’t been much of a thinker regarding philosophical or spiritual teachings. On one hand I can’t stay out of it, because he is a man I’ve been helping for a whole year and I like him; love for another human being, someone I honored having been in war, Pearl Harbor, but I can’t be attached to his path. Amen. I do pray for him that he doesn’t have to continue suffering.
Second rendering of my last 48 hours with Bob. During the time with Bob I was never able to fully understand what he was going through. He may not know himself and if he does he can’t get out the words about dying, regrets, forgiveness. When Kathy relieved me in the morning, and I told her what her dad was going through; it was uncomfortable to share his pain with his daughter as it’s been off and on with both Mary and Kathy. We’re all feeling it with him. I called Kathy later in the day to see how her father was doing. She told me he was going through the same things throughout the day, calling for help, making the same noises, telling her at one point he was falling. She’s told me how she kept busy when he was quiet straightening up the office room with all the hospice supplies. Maybe her dad’s room also. I suppose trying to get her mind off of his pain and his ordeal. When the nurse Bev visited that afternoon, they helped straighten up his bed, especially the folded sheet under Bob we use for helping him turn from side to side. Sometimes I’d use it and sometimes I’d gently put my arms around and under him and helping him to change positions, being careful not to cause him any discomfort. Everything felt hard to do and now in this moment, weeks later as I rewrite, I feel the sensation of his boney body as I gently helped turn him to his other side.
I felt awkward part of the time with the care I was giving Bob unsure of what more I could do, feeling at times I wasn’t doing enough. Trying to make him physically comfortable; the other part of me trying to help with the transition from here to yon. It was sacred, that’s all I can say about it. I have gotten drawn right into the dying with him and the agony he’s going through.
Nov. 9, 4:00 a.m. I’m up to help Bob to bathroom. When he was getting back in bed he said one of his favorite expressions: “oh, what a life we live.”
I commented, “and you’re really stretching it out, Bob.”
“Well, most people go through a process.”
“Some leave tragically, like Larry, going real quick.” Larry, was a brother-in-law, 90 years-old, a very close friend and his wife, Vin, were killed a few weeks earlier in a car accident.
“He was driving too fast at that curve. His foot probably slipped off the break onto the accelerator.”
“You’re probably right on that one.”
“I think about the after life. I think it’s pleasant.”
“Go to the light.”
“I’ve heard, that when someone dies and they see the light; go to it.”
“There’s nothing to be afraid of. I hear it’s pleasant.”
“I’ve heard you say you’re ready.”
“I’m in the process.”
“I think there’s a long line.”
“Well I’m waiting.”
“Good night Bob, sleep well.”