Asphalt Sanctuary

An afternoon nap yesterday under one of the skylights in my newly rebuilt living room. When I awoke I could see a sky brilliantly colored in pink, so I stepped outside to get a better look, just before all the color began to dull and then disappear. My mother, an oil paint artist, would often use this color in the paintings she did of sunsets on the ocean. Some critics would tell her that her palette was all wrong, that no such color existed in nature, and that this incorrect choice of color made her work look gaudy. I recall how we would laugh every time we saw this color appear in the sky. Did the critics never go outside and have a look for themselves?

When I see this color heavily brushed about the sky I think of her, her tubes of paint, her life. She died July 21, 1999, at the age of sixty-nine. The event seems like only a moment ago. She had a heavy dose of scarlet fever when four, before the availability of antibiotics, and spent a year in bed. Her heart was permanently damaged from the fever, so she spent a good deal of those sixty-nine years in poor health. One of the medications she took caused her lungs to slowly become fibrous, losing their ability to exchange good and bad air, until she was no longer able to breathe easily. She carried on for another year or two with the added breathing difficulty, in and out of hospitals, until the fateful day when the only way to check out was not through the front door, but through the veil of this physical world.

The day before she died her doctor told her he was going to put her on a ventilator and that she would have to be in the intensive care unit. She was as clear, lucid, eager to live, as I find myself today, and yet knew that she quite soon would live no more. She cried some, we talked about loving each other, then she was wheeled into ICU. Her doctor then met with my sister and me. He told us she had to be put to sleep because her lungs were completely failing her and life on a respirator was no life. He then asked us to name the hour in which we would like for him to begin administering the fateful morphine drip. He gave us no other choice. I wanted to argue and find a way to make all good once again, but he insisted that it was impossible.

We walked away from his consultation stunned, the darkest day of my life. Not only to learn of the immediacy of this event, but then given the power as to when it must take place, made me feel like a man with loaded gun in his pocket about to blow out the brains of a fellow human being. My sister and I paced around in the rear hospital parking lot. The only place nearby and convenient to talk over our decision, to get away from the crowd and find some peace and clarity, was the parking lot. It was a hot day, about noon when we received the message. I could feel the heat of the asphalt cooking my shoes and bottoms of my feet. I felt dizzy and sick, guilty and treasonous, angry, deserted, and confused. We talked much, but the words we shared gave us no relief. We were here to conduct the business of having our mother killed.

When the morphine began to drip, her breathing and her heart beat slowed. The family came and laid hands on her, prayed, and softly sang some of her favorite church hymns to her, not knowing if she was hearing us, not knowing what else we might do to help her reach the end. Then it was over. Just another lump of rotting organic material racked out on a bed in a busy hospital ward, with maids standing by to mop and vacuum the floor, wash the bloody sheets, wipe down the walls, recycle and clean all the medical instruments and tools that lay strewn all around her. The tubes and bandages, scissors and tape, plastic basins and bed pan, all had to be scooped up and removed, the dying space prepared for the next occupant. Death is such a dirty and bothersome business.

Why is a hospital not more like a sanctuary? Most of us come into this life in a hospital and most of us leave this life from a hospital, a depot for arrivals and departures, a place where many experience and reflect on the deeper things of living. And yet, most hospitals are not designed to celebrate human dignity and worth, or the sacredness of life, but rather are built industriously clean and efficient, with little or no thought given to human aesthetics. Life and death are an efficiency expert’s business plan. Sanctuaries, on the other hand, are often built with a sense of design and beauty about them, meant to inspire, and yet they do not seem to accommodate the regular celebration of souls coming and going from the other world. They look very much a part of this world.

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