4 min read
Several months ago, about three weeks before my dad died, a friend and I walked a small stone labyrinth close to my home. I’d never walked a labyrinth before but thought I was familiar with the concept. Slow, contemplative walking around a set circular path. I thought we would enter the labyrinth at the largest, outside ring and slowly make our way to the centre by walking round and round in ever smaller circles, then exit at the same point we entered. Pretty simple, except the labyrinth didn’t work how I had thought it would.
I followed my friend into the labyrinth and, after the first few turns, realized that we had completely missed the outer two or three rings. I couldn’t help thinking we had done it wrong. Totally missed a large part of it. I kept trying to put that thought out of my head – there is no right way, just follow the path – but it kept coming back.
My friend had been clear before we started that this was to be a silent walk. So, I couldn’t point out to her that we had messed up. Even the walk out after we got to the centre didn’t feel right to me. We did the largest outside rings at the end and exited at a different spot than where we started. Totally not how I thought it would be.
After we finished, I realized that I had been so wrapped up in how I thought it should be that I almost ruined my experience of how it actually was. It occurred to me that the labyrinth was a metaphor for my current life situation.
I’d been struggling more than usual with the whole “trying to control life” thing for a few months; since we had been told that my dad was “actively dying”. I didn’t make that up. It’s a thing! Luckily for all of us he was admitted to our local Hospice, which in my opinion was the most loving and caring place in the world for him to get on with the business of actively dying.
However, in his case, actively dying didn’t appear to be very active. Nothing much changed in his condition from day to day and after a few weeks I began to worry that he would outlive the three-month maximum that a person can stay at Hospice. I wasn’t being heartless. He was physically bedridden and mentally ready to go. But he was so happy to “have ended up” there and the care was so wonderful that I couldn’t bear the thought of moving him somewhere else for his last days.
The staff at Hospice were wonderful. When I questioned them, they would gently tell me that “there is no defined pattern to dying. Everyone does it differently and in their own time and not everyone ‘looks’ like they are dying. Don’t worry and we’ll work through future arrangements if and when that time comes.” But, like in the labyrinth, I couldn’t let go of thinking and worrying about what we would do at the end of the three months.
Even though the labyrinth’s life message was clear to me – just keep going, trust the path – I still couldn’t let go of wanting it to be another way. Even though I could see the whole labyrinth laid out before me, I still didn’t know exactly how it would unfold. And I wanted to know. I wanted to know “your dad has X amount of time to live and this is what it will look like and he will be able to stay at Hospice and be lovingly cared for until his last breath.”
I recently looked up the definition of a labyrinth, “A complicated irregular network of passages or paths in which it is difficult to find one’s way.” However, unlike a maze, a labyrinth “has only one path to the center and back out … the path twists and turns back on itself many times before reaching the center. Once at the center, there is only one way back out. In this way, the labyrinth symbolizes a journey to a predetermined destination (such as a pilgrimage to a holy site), or the journey through life from birth to spiritual awakening to death.” (definitions from Lexico and verywellfit.com)
And that’s how the last leg of my dad’s journey unfolded. It twisted and turned back on itself. We were all confused at times. We let it play out. No intervention. No control. We had time to say what needed to be said. We did our best to make his life as enjoyable as possible. And he died peacefully with us by his side two months after his arrival at Hospice.
I went back to the labyrinth recently during a family hike. Even walking it again just for fun I was still surprised by the twists and turns and how it doubled back on itself several times. I still got confused and wasn’t sure if I was doing it correctly or if I had missed a turn. Even when I knew from experience to just follow the path and trust that it will get me where I need to go, I still had trouble accepting it. Accepting what is. Letting go of trying to control the situation. Trusting that life is unfolding just as it is supposed to be.