We Shake with Joy

We at New College Berkeley wish you all God’s blessings this Christmas as you “shake with joy” and “shake with grief,” bringing all of who you are and all the concerns you carry to Jesus, whose achingly human birth we celebrate. 

We Shake with Joy

by Bonnie Howe

We shake with joy, we shake with grief. 

What a time they have, these two
housed as they are in the same body.

Mary Oliver, Evidence

Thursday afternoon on South 3, the palliative care and hospice ward at Laguna Honda Hospital: I enter Betty’s room, which is now her home and where she will die. She is awake! She’s not been awake on Thursday afternoons for a month, and I am eager to see if she wants company, is at all available. I feel my eagerness, so remind myself to go slowly and quietly, gently. 

Going to her bedside, I say hello, gazing into her beautiful blue eyes. We do recognize one another, but I can sense that she is trying to recall how she knows me. That’s ok; we met just four months ago, in a similar way. Also, the clinic notes tell me she has cognitive deficits, a mental illness, and pain medications that make her groggy, clouding her thinking. 

I say her name, and mine, but I don’t say anything else for several minutes. No need to talk while I get fresh water for her flowers and put the vase where she can see it. Then, choosing a framed photo from her bookcase, I hold it up so we both can see it. I gaze into her face again, looking for her response, which is subtle and sweet. 

-I have an idea that this handsome cat is a good friend of yours. Yes? 


More quiet, to give us both time to gaze at the cat.

-I have cat friends, too, that I love. And I have had other beloved cats that I’ve had to say goodbye to. That was very hard. But death can’t take away the love we shared. There’s something wonderful about a cat accepting you, asking to be held, purring in your lap. 


We talk some more about cats, and then I offer some choices.

-I have some poems, but we could also just be quiet. I would be happy to just sit with you. Would you like poems, or quiet, or both? 


Betty says this with a smile and a gleam in her eye. The gleam in her eye is pure gold. It means she is truly present. We have a chance to connect.

So I sit beside her and read some Mary Oliver poems. First, “Violets” and “Then Bluebird Sang.” This gives rise to talk of violets and bluebirds, but also about truancy from school, and how neither of us was so bold as Oliver, who claims to have set a record for unexcused absences. But, we observe, apparently she did learn how to read and write. More importantly, she learned how to notice what is happening alongside a creek. At the end of the bluebird poem, Oliver speaks of:

the creep and the click

   and the rustle

     that greet me wherever I go

         with their joyful cry: I’m still here, alive!

I repeat that last line and pause, then say: 

-I notice that you’re still here, alive, and that gives me joy. I wonder, do you still sometimes wake in the morning, and think, “I’m still here, alive!”? 


- I wonder if sometimes you’re able to feel joy, even here.


-Even with all this pain, these limitations?


-What a gift.

I pause before I read the next poem, because I feel I’m taking a risk. I know that poem and am a little worried about how it might strike this patient lying flat on her chronically aching back, with her terminal diagnosis and her many obvious losses. I take a deep breath and begin to read: We shake with joy, we shake with grief.  Betty sighs audibly, a sigh full of feeling, recognition. I look over at her, and interrupt the poem. 

- We just now were shaken with both joy and grief, thinking about cats we have loved, weren’t we? 

- Yes! 

- Shall I go on? 


What a time they have, these two
housed as they are in the same body.

Another sigh emerges, and as I gaze into her face, I see a tear slip out of the corner of her left eye. I can feel tears welling up in me, as well. 

We pause. I repeat that last line: “housed as they are in the same body.” 

There followed a conversation so deep and intimate I do not feel it is appropriate to share here. But we can talk about this: the possibility of shaking with both joy and grief, even at the same moment. And what a time we have together when we share those moments. This is embodied cognition and communication, in which feelings and thoughts come simultaneously, authenticating one another, shouting, I am alive! We are here!

Friends have asked me if hospice caregiving is depressing. Here is my answer: I shake with joy, I shake with grief. Depression only seems to arise when I am not open to both. Yielding to the temptation to evaluate and judge, to assess my competency and effectiveness, is a trap. Because truly, I alone could never give the dying and demented patients I see all that they need. I can only give a little and must entrust patients to the community of caregivers who together can offer constant-enough presence and care. 

Jean Vanier called that “fidelity to the weak,” and he founded the L’Arche communities in keeping with that principle. Yet Vanier admitted that often such fidelity “can look like wasting time” with people. So instead of telling you about that one remarkable time with Betty, perhaps I should tell you about the previous week when I sat at her bedside and listened to her breathing and moaning while she slept fitfully. Conversation was not possible. I prayed for her silently and aloud. I was not wasting time, but neither was I producing anything concrete. There were not even any flowers to fix. But that somewhat frustrating time primed me—and maybe her—to enter fully into the gift of shared joy and grief that was coming. 

Bonnie Howe, Ph.D., is NCB Adjunct Professor of Ethics and Biblical Studies.

*See the documentary, “Summer in the Forest.” http://www.summerintheforest.com