All Flavours of Humility
“Hanns is dying,” said my friend Cath.
“What kind of dying?” I asked.
“Dying, dying.” She responded.
My defensive response followed years of my mother dying, an ongoing guilt about her imminent death which repeated itself countless times.
When someone is dying, the rule is you go. Relatives, close friends, well that is a no brainer.
So is the wider circle. I presume that folks I barely know have no wish to see me in their dying days.
But what about that ambiguous circle of folks one hasn’t spoken with in twenty years? Who you care about, but also you haven’t really made space for in 20 years?
Cath assured me: Hanns is the consummate extrovert. He would love to see you. It won’t be weird.
I met Hanns at a job interview when I was 23. He was a United Church minister in Owen Sound. I was trying not to be a teacher, (which I had trained for), and trying not to be an artist (a calling I was doing my best to ignore). I applied to be a volunteer coordinator at his church.
I didn’t get the job.
But I pursued getting to know this minister who delighted me.
I hadn’t met anyone like Hanns. Men of his generation—my father’s age—were to my mind unscrupulous, bombastic and insensitive, tyrannical and/or bland. And largely out of the room. If a tender subject came up, (and it generally wouldn’t), stoic fathers I knew would clear their throats. Turn the conversation upside down.
But most likely; leave the room.
Hanns turned my head because he was brave. A religious figure who was thoughtful, enquiring. Neither shaming nor righteous was refreshing. He was warm, expressive, sparkly. He explored doubt freely. He looked at the world with curiosity and humour.
Fresh out of university, I was a stranger in a town that wasn’t working for me, hating this new adulthood. I was spiritually starving. I went to his house often, enjoyed the warm and lively relationship Hanns had with his wife Marlene. It gave me hope.
But I lost touch, gave in to teaching some unlucky high school students, and then left town for art school.
A few years later I found myself in Almonte, coincidentally the town where Hanns had been a much admired the United Church minister in the late sixties.
I had my own babies here. I took my kids to the co-operative nursery school in the basement of Almonte United Church. Every day I passed a sign that celebrated their minister Hanns Skoutajan who had served at the church between 1964-69.
As a parent of preschoolers I spent many an afternoon hanging out in the old stone manse across from the church. Hanns and his family had lived there. I’ve been friends with three families who have lived there, a house that has served me as a second home where I would go for tea with a good friend and pour my heart out when life was wearing me down.
I came into a sunlit living room in downtown Ottawa. I found Hanns, 85, lying in a hospital bed. Surely this was the perfect way to go: a loving spouse, two kids taking shifts beside you. A profoundly meaningful and variegated life behind you.
Hanns was diminished in size, so much of his energy gone, a reminder of his former self.
He reported matter-of-factly that waiting to die is no fun.
I reached for his hand, fervently hoping his granddaughter is able to remember the larger person.
As I sat with him I wondered how many dozens of times Hanns must have been the doula; bearing witness, comforting the dying. Despite my initial reluctance, I was humbled. Deeply.
Dying, on either side of the bed it seems is just humbling.
Hanns looked around but no longer said much. He recalled a few memories without much enthusiasm. He was tired.
That seemed to me a good way to go.
I crept away as his wife Marlene, daughter and aide began dealing with the logistics of bathing.
I got in my car on this warm December day. I drove in silence to my yoga class. Such pointed moments extracting me boldly from my habitual, unconscious presumptions about the gift of being alive.
The perimeter of the yoga studio floor was lit by Christmas lights. I rolled out my disintegrating yoga mat, taking in all the prone bodies around me. I had ten years on all the other yogis.
I laid down in corpse pose.
I thought about being an artist, how annoyed I had been when people described this as a spiritual endeavor. It was a hard way to begin this path.
I had clung to the idea of myself as hard working and rational. But I also harboured a pressing need to spend my life meaningfully.
One kick at the can, no matter how I wished I believed in something else.
Inhaling, I mused on how we light up inside when someone fills a need in us. A need maybe we don’t even know we had.
Surrounded by his family, Hanns took his last breath that evening.
Such gratitude I have towards the brave.