Hospice Patients Alliance: Patient Advocates


A Raindrop in Winter


by Ron Panzer

January 18, 2012



When the snow falls softly, you can see each bright flake before you as it swirls gently through the air this way and that, making its landing on the ground, disappearing into a gathering of fellow snowflakes. A blanket of snow covering the land. It's a winter wonderland, almost magical!

Tree branches hang heavy, covered with pure white snow, bowing low before the splendour of the land. Ice-covered trees shine like diamond-studded sentinels standing at attention in the cold, beautiful light.



snow covered trees
Photo courtesy of Bestesoft.com

Yes, some prefer Spring. Or Summer, or at least Fall, for sure. But Winter? "Terrible!" "Harsh!" ... the ending of the beautiful sweet times. You dread the loss of the warm months, knowing the blistering cold and wind will be whistling again, and you're just not ready yet. There's nothing you can do about it. Even if you protest as loud as you can, it's coming your way.

Leaves dropped, flowers long forgotten, everything appears misleadingly dead. Even some of the rivers stop, frozen in place it seems.

During the storms, there's no stopping the snow and wind. Fierce and biting cold. Not a good time to go walking or driving on the ice-covered roads. Looking through a window with a warm fire nearby, you can see the beauty of the storm. It's easy to appreciate it when you're not in the middle of it. Swirling patterns whip from side to side, drifting high here and hollowing out valleys there in the snow. You might even drink hot cocoa and play games with family or friends.

But if you are out in the storm, all you know is the frigid few inches right before you, and you might wonder what purpose it all has, what good it all is. You cover up as best you can: gloves, hat, scarf, heavy coat and boots. A part of you starts to wonder if you'll be ok, if those you love will be safe. You are confronted with the power of Nature and how small each of us is in the hands of this overwhelming, unstoppable force.

Aside from those who enjoy the winter sports, you protest inside, "Snow!" "Ice!" "Wind!" "Maybe I should move South and avoid the whole thing." "What's the point?" "What good can come from such bitter cold?" "All it brings are accidents, suffering and pain."

But you would be wrong.

Winter snows melt and feed the streams that nourish the land and give rise to the newness, greenness and exhilaration of Spring. Out of the seeming death and danger of winter comes new life, new hope. The cycle begins again.

Sure, there's danger. You might freeze to death, slip, or get lost in the storm. But it's also possible to get lost or hurt in Summer, Spring or Fall. Whether a large forest, desert or shore, there are always places where those things can happen. Wild animals live in all sorts of lands and seas. The Earth can be a dangerous place in any season, yet that doesn't negate its beauty or its worth. And Winter's bitter cold, storms, and winds don't negate its beauty, either.

We have to be prepared for what comes, the reality of Nature, and of life. Whether a Winter storm's bite or the winter of our lives. And it's not always sparkling with awe-inspiring ice-covered branches shining in the sun, creating a magical fantastic realm of unbelievable beauty that could silence even the greatest monarch.

No, it's not. Sometimes, life is painful. Sometimes, suffering is terribly real, seemingly the only thing we can perceive. Sometimes, it's as desolate as the fiercest storm, whipping hard snow into your face, making you struggle to take a breath or one step forward. Yet, even with the worst pain, there is an awareness, a space within where we can take a step back and realize that that pain is not "all that is." There's more, always more, available to each of us, no matter how bad it gets. We're not alone. For He told us:

And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."
                                                                          [Matthew 28:20]


Whether we are old, ailing or disabled, the Lord of all Nature is at our side, helping us along. No matter how depressed or discouraged we get, we have the choice to accept that help or reject it, but He will help us in the long run.

And hopefully, there comes a time when we are ready to accept Him and accept His help. We could say that all life is a preparation for this. All the problems and struggles of our life can give us an opportunity to let go of our stubborn pride, make us able to more fully accept His love. Most of us have to be beaten down some way by life's trials and tribulations in order to be able to get up with humility, understanding and appreciate the blessings we didn't see before.

Though we should provide everything we can to ease the pain of those trying times for those who are suffering, a greater inner torment is felt in loneliness, isolation, depression, grief for the loss of the good times or those we love, the helplessness we feel before the relentness march of time. For every change means the loss of the familiar and the appearance of the approaching unknown, which if we're honest, many of us dread.

There is no cure in this world for the underlying pain we rarely express: our separation from the Lord, a distance that cannot be breached without grace, without the Holy Spirit. Either we're "in" or we're "out," and being "out" is hell, pure suffering in our own personal way. Try as hard as we may, we can't be at peace until we're "in" with Him.

Anything else and we're just struggling, fighting in our own inner storm, no matter how happy we pretend to be. Anything else and we're just "treading water," barely able to maintain control, control over our career, control over those at home, control over every situation that comes along.

You could say that achieving control is one of the major goals we have, because we believe that if we can control everything around us and be the "lord" of our own little world, we'll be happy. But that's a lie we tell ourselves to avoid the real problem. Even if we could control everything in great detail, happiness would be just as far away as before. You know the saying, "be careful what you wish for, you just might get it." And getting what we want in the world may not be as fulfilling as we thought.

Control is an illusion, and its reward is sterile and colder than any Winter possible. Why? Because we're part of something greater. Achieving total control is as ridiculous as a snowflake trying to control the storm, the wind, the temperature: absolutely impossible. Every time we fail to achieve control, ... disappointment, frustration and anger bubble up from inside.

A snowflake, if it could think and feel, would have to surrender to its obvious helplessness in the storm. Sure, we're not snowflakes, and we're not as utterly helpless. We can control a lot, think, feel, analyze, make decisions, and act upon those decisions. But we can't control what others do, or the direction societies and nations take at our point in this world, at this place and time.

Others are equally entitled to their own thoughts, feelings, analysis, decisions and independent actions as well as their reactions to what we do. Nations and societies are going to do what they will, no matter what we wish or hope for. We can't even control everything we ourselves do. Not always. Sometimes we feel compelled to act one way or another. We may act impulsively, or react out of anger, desire or despair.

Though we're supposedly rational creatures, looking out on the world, it's clear that that is not always the case. Take a look at the news, the courts, the wars and crimes against others. You know we are far from being completely rational beings, and as a whole, we're certainly not "just" beings who function wholly or even mostly for the good of others as well as ourselves.

Someone may have mistreated or insulted us, told us we can never succeed, or rejected us, so we try to prove them wrong or we seek revenge. We work hard, study, make the grade, train and do whatever it is that means "success" to us. We may find someone to share that "success" and build a world of our own, a home, career, family, friendships and more. We're respected and rewarded. We may think we've "made it."

Yet, others may not always cooperate with what we want. Others may not always see things our way. Others may choose to do the thing we hoped they would never do. And if our happiness depends upon what those others do, in our career, at home, or anywhere else, it never is a stable "success."

If our definition of "success" depends upon proving others wrong, getting revenge or stepping on others to advance, we will never be truly happy. And even if we achieve what we think will make us happy, we never get there permanently. Disappointment is bound to appear again and again.

No matter how frantically we fight for control, to determine our reality, success is fleeting, unreliable, impermanent. We may even be well-respected in society, giving generously from what we've amassed. But if we give to seek the approval of others, it does not bring peace, because the emptiness we try to hide from others is like a bottomless well.

Living and achieving "success" on those terms is like standing on top of a sinking ship. No matter how high we climb, death awaits. Our day in the Summer sun will come to an end. Winter always comes. Always!

We can scream and throw a tantrum any way we want, but reality hits us like that biting snow whipping up into our face. We can squeeze tight, desperate to maintain and prolong our success, prolong the happy times, but just as a bird held too tightly will only die, the peaks of our lives must eventually give way to valleys. Everyone will experience "downs" as well as "ups." Nothing lasts forever.

Our grasp on power wanes until we have none at all. The money that bought all sorts of entertainments ceases to mean much if anything at all. Those who flocked to our side when we were at our peak in power, status, and wealth, simply leave like rats abandoning that sinking ship. We can't buy their true friendship or love, as much as we might try, and we can't buy eternal life, no matter how wealthy we may become:

"It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart."
                                                                          [Ecclesiastes 7:2 ]


and:

"By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return."
                                                                          [Genesis 3:19]



Good to remind ourselves of the realities! If we can wake up from our delusions, we can let go and realize that however much we do, we can only control what we do, not what others do. And however much we try to avoid suffering, we can't control the passage of time. We can't guarantee our health or our friends here. We can't be certain we'll live a long life. Life comes with many unexpected surprises along the way.

Whatever we do, we really can't do it all alone. The reality is that all of us have been helped by another, given another chance by another, raised up and encouraged when we fell down. Whether welcome or not, life's changes and challenges will effect us, and we have to make the best of it, making adjustments along the way.

We don't exist in a world of our own making and control, but are inter-connected, social beings whose lives overlap and influence each other in an infinite number of ways. Like ripples on the lake form rings rolling out across the waters, our life ripples are affected by all the other rings rolling out from other people's lives, sometimes so many that it's hard to separate one ring or ripple from another. We touch so many lives and so many touch our own.

It's so clear that we do not control the world! We only control what we do in our circle, our ring, of the world, and we can affect the world. Of course, we should do what we can to benefit society as well as ourselves in this world.

But that's just for the relatively very short time we're here able to choose. We can dip our life fingers into the lake, we can send rings rolling out to the other shore, but when we stop as eventually we all must, the ripples die down and disappear.

And then, the undesirable, ... the final days of the winter in our life will come our way. That's something we all know. We can't prevent it. We can't really avoid suffering at any stage of life; it's part of the journey.

We don't like it. Some experience a despair that lives just beneath the surface of any success we may have achieved in the world. When it rears its head, we may think that life is not worth living anymore, that things are so bad, it's time to end it all. It may cross our minds.

Some decide that if they can't control life anymore, or at least can't successfully lie to themselves that they are controlling their lives anymore, they'll control the time of their death, go out "on their own terms," when they want, how they want, with what they want, so they leave without suffering the indignity of being less than what they can accept, imperfect like all the rest of us.

That "when they want," "how they want," and "what they want," reminds me of the definition of a spoiled child throwing a tantrum to get his or her way. It's not pretty.

And some decide that anyone who also is in the same boat, when they believe the quality of life is poor, should be allowed to kill themselves or be killed if they can't do it themselves. But who defines "poor" quality of life? Who gets to decide who lives and who dies? Who is empowered to kill under their plan? There's a lot of room for abuse, especially when those deciding have rejected the value of life itself as something sacred.

A woman called a few days ago telling me that her mother's physician sent her to hospice just because she was old, and she died shortly thereafter, a victim of stealth euthanasia, without having any terminal illness.

However much they "sell" their agenda to the public, we don't erect monuments to those who exploit or kill the elderly, disabled, the ailing or poor. We don't erect monuments to those who put themselves first or abandon the fight and leave the defenseless to be slaughtered. We don't erect monuments to those who tell others, "you're better off dead."

Building a life based upon false premises, for negative reasons, out of fear, anger or revenge, only leads to emptiness, despair and evil. It leads to individual crassness, arrogance, insensitivity and self-centeredness. As a society, it leads to the culture of death, the devaluation of many individual lives and the poisoning of society.

Rather than admitting to the truth, accepting their limitations and the realities of life, they choose to kill themselves or have others kill them when they choose. They think they can avoid suffering this way. They think that they can forever be in control of their lives. They promote the idea of assisted-suicide, euthanasia and stealth-euthanasia in order to justify their own fear-based actions.

But others recognize that suffering brings us to the point where we're ready to embrace the dear Lord, here in this life. It need not be at the end. Some accept Him in Springtime, Summer or Fall. And accepting Him, they accept the suffering here while working to make things better, and keep on so long as they live. They no longer fear. They say with the Psalmist:

"I sought the Lord, and He heard me, and delivered me from all my fears."
                                                                          [Psalm 34:4]


They're ready to let this life go when the time comes, neither having lived in fear of their own limitations, weaknesses and suffering nor having sought to end it prematurely. They tell us, like King David sang:

"In my distress I called upon the Lord;
to my God I cried for help.
From His temple He heard my voice,
and my cry to Him reached His ears.
                                                                          [Psalm 18:6]


They know it's ok. They know it's the way of the world, the way of things. Spring comes, Summer goes. Fall fades and Winter arrives. They accept that "it's time." Beautiful, shimmering, cold. Summer had to end. We know.



snowflakes in the forest
Photo courtesy of Wallpapersup.net

Have you walked in the woods in Winter? ... listened to the birds sing their plaintive calls, the sound of your shoes on snow so cold it squeaks? A chickadee's call is echoed by other friends hidden among the trees. A blue jay squawks, a bright red cardinal sweetly sings his plaintive song. And then silence. The silence of winter stillness ... like no other. The sky so blue. Sun so bright. Snow all around.

You stop and know, "we're not alone."

You know we don't have to do it all on our own. Our gaze focuses upward and we thrill with joy at His loving touch. Have you felt it?

You can't even speak, then. Have you ever looked toward the light with the cold against your face, and felt embraced by the warmth of the sun? ... warmed through and through? Felt the peace that pervades a world when connected to Him?

Life doesn't have to be a struggle for control. A good life can be something other than a constant fight. We can make the adjustments we need while doing what is necessary, keeping our eye on another reward, something that fills us, satisfies and never ends. It can be sweet, peaceful, even joyful.

When the end of our life approaches, we live in the awareness of His love, comforting us more than any medication could ever do.

Winter can be beautiful. A raindrop in winter still dances, still swirls, still glistens.

Like all the other snowflakes that have come and gone, we can lay down and disappear into a blanket of pure white snow covering the land. We had our Springs, our Summers and our Falls. The light still shines even though our time is done. The beauty and love we share in this world will live on.

It's like a storybook we can't put down. Page after page, drinking in the words, feeling and experiencing the thrill of life, the challenge, the adventure, danger and love. But even though we all love those good stories that just must have a good ending, the storybook has an end. We want it to go on. But that's the thing: the story has to come to an end. We have to close the cover and lay it down sometime. Yet, with a great story just like a great life, the feeling stays with us.

We never forget a life well-lived. But what is a life well-lived?

A life filled with honor, loyalty, honesty, industriousness, faithfulness and love. A life of service and kindness for the poorest of the poor. A life defending and protecting those who are weak and defenseless. A life nurturing those who are growing up. A life achieving and building things whether great or simple, producing wonderful services and products, exemplifying excellence in achievement. These are the heroes and saints: these exemplify the great qualities of a truly successful life.

Our own lives can end well if we choose well. Winter can be beautiful in its own way. It's just the end of one storybook and His way of preparing us for the next.

Those who accompany us along the way share our story in their own journey, giving, comforting, and loving a raindrop in winter. And we dance, swirl, and shine yet a little longer till we rest, too.



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