Some things you really want to get right. When my father was being taken away for his serious operation, I didn't think it was asking too much of life to be able to say or hear two or three meaningful words, like "I love you," "Forgive me," or "Good-bye" one more time.
Say these words a thousand times, and you can still come up just two or three syllables shy. We worry about the possibility that we may not say or hear everything we long for. Or that we may realize what we want to share, ask, or hear--but it will be too late.
I remember some time ago when I was studying for my brown belt in karate. My wise sensei saw how hard I was working, and how fearful I was of the test to come. He took me aside.
"Understand something," he said to me. "You won't pass because of something you do special or different on the one day of the exam. You will pass because of all the years of practice you have already invested. Your everyday self is all that is necessary.
The same is true of important moments in our relationships. I thought that having had breast cancer, accepting the inevitability of mortality, I had accepted my imperfection. But now, faced with this new challenge of my father's illness, I began to realize that even if I admitted that this was not my show, I had tried at the very least to keep control of the script. I had monitored each word that passed between me and my father, searching for hidden meanings. I had treasured some, rejected others. But when you surrender yourself to life, you don't get to pick and choose the pieces you'll keep and the ones you'll release. Like my karate sensei taught me, the truth of who and what you and your relationships are is not about what you do or say on any one occasion, but is the sum total of how you choose to live your life every day.
In the Christian tradition, the story is told of three fishermen who have something to teach us about how to live our lives every day. A bishop's ship is scheduled to pay a rare visit to a remote island. As the bishop disembarks to stroll along the sandy seashore, he comes across three fishermen mending their nets. In broken English, the fishermen explained that centuries before, this island had been visited by a missionary. They proudly tell the bishop that their ancestors had become Christians. Impressed, the bishop asks them to recite the Lord's Prayer. Dutifully, the three fishermen turn their gaze upward and recite in unison, "We are three, you are three, have mercy on us."When you exhaust yourself worrying about getting things the way you think they are supposed to be, you sink. Only when you become willing to embrace the wider range of human possibilities do you become connected to the whole. This, then, is sacred space: the realm of the true mystic. This is not tamed order, delivering you the worlds you want in reward for your good behavior. Rather, this is the wild space where life sends you deep into the mystery of love and faith.
Appalled at the primitive prayer, the bishop spent the day teaching them the correct words to the Lord's Prayer. The fishermen tried as hard as they could, at last giving the bishop the satisfaction of hearing the prayer said correctly. Months later, the bishop's ship returned to the area of the fishermen's island. The bishop looked up and noticed a light approaching the ship from the east. Astonished, the bishop recognized the three fishermen walking on top of the sea toward his boat.
"Bishop," they cried out when at last they were close enough to be heard. "We have an important question to ask you. We are so very, very sorry but we forgot the worlds to your prayer. We start out fine but then we forget. Please teach us the words again."
The bishop was silent for a moment, then he replied, "Go back to your island, my brothers, and each time you pray, say, "We are three, you are three, have mercy on us."
Bedside vigils, long hours spent in hospital waiting rooms, and times of life transition can be portals to deeper conversation and connection with the people we love and with our own inner wisdom. When we find ourselves existing in extraordinary time, often we can access new levels of permission to say what needs to be said, hear what needs to be heard. Sometimes all we need is the right question to unlock the door....
Use the questions as conversation starters with the person for whom you care. If your loved one is open to it, posing these questions can create an environment that allows you to gently address deeper issues that need to be accessed and healed. You might start with the first question and continue on through the list to its conclusion, as time and energy allow. If it feels right, you and your loved one might take turns answering the questions.