HER NAME WAS SARAH. She was old, in her seventies or eighties, and very frail. And, at first anyway, she was one of the most terrifying people I'd ever met. Nothing personal, but the fact was that Sarah was dying, and I hadn't spent a lot of time around people who were dying.
I'd been a Jesuit for only four months, and part of my testing to help me decide if I could live my life as a Jesuit was to spend two months visiting and caring for people who were close to death. I was terrified. I had no idea where to begin. What could I possibly do for or say to someone who was going to die next week? For a few days I just roamed the place, pretending to be busy, getting to know the other volunteers, and staying away from the dying people.
Toward the end of that first week I finally got up the courage to walk into Sarah's room. I managed to say something like "How are you doing?" or "Nice day, isn't it?" To my surprise, Sarah didn't die on the spot, and she didn't comment on how lame my questions were. She seemed unconcerned with my lack of profundity, and soon enough we were just two people talking.
There is a strange and immediate intimacy that comes with awareness of one's mortality. Sarah, drifting in and out of delusion, took me places in her memory that I'd never been before. I became part of her family. I shared her most sacred and special moments. With Sarah, I walked the grounds of her farm in Maclain, Texas, though we never left her room. She helped me realize what a privilege it was to be with her at this time. I began to forget my initial fears. I thought, hey, this is pretty easy. I can handle this. Maybe working with the dying isn't so hard after all.
But then she asked a question, and suddenly I faced another challenge beyond conversation and good feelings. It was like one of those movie scenes when time slows down and faces freeze in thoughtfulness or horror, and one second becomes an eternity. In that forever second, my comfort was taken away, and the unthinkable happened. I heard Sarah asking, "Do you rub feet?"
Did I do what? I stopped and looked at her ugly, twisted old woman's feet and I thought no, absolutely not! But I hardly had time to think about what I was doing when I saw my hands reaching for those feet because I realized something else. If my answer was not yes, then it was time for me to leave all this and go home. Because if I couldn't do this, then I couldn't possibly be a Jesuit, I couldn't possibly be a priest. Because what I was trying to be, what I had to be, was someone who does rub feet .I would be a fraud if Jesus couldn't say to me on that final day, "I was dying and you rubbed my feet."
So I rubbed Sarah's feet, and I fed her, and I prayed with her every day I was there until the day she died. And then I cried, and I thanked God for the privilege of knowing this terrifying old woman with sore feet who in her final days changed the course of my life forever.
Compassion and loving kindness
are the hallmarks of achievement and happiness.
- Dalai Lama
back to top | home