Leading the Dance
A Family's Experience of Conscious Dying

by 
Sharon Joyner
Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur 
Issue #33, Spring 1999, p 27



                                                             
     My Dad, Earl Joseph Joyer, loved music and dancing.  Growing up in a large farming family in Minnesota, nightly "entertainment" was filled with piano, violin, and dancing.  Intuitively he knew the rhythm and beat was healing for him.  A few weeks before he died in February of 1997, Dad danced with Mom in the living room of our home.  The oxygen line dangled at his side as they gently waltzed to their favorite courting tune, "Maria Elena", played on the piano by my sister Marilyn.  They danced through memories of 54 years of married life; through experiences of sickness and health, joys and sorrows, light and darkness.

     Some years ago I heard Mary Daniel Turner, SND de Namur, speak about participation, intention, and art as essential elements in a dance.  She said that these qualities invite the dancer(s) to breathe with self, others, and the universe.  I recalled these words as I watched Mom and Dad.  It was the dance that moved them into the rhythm of Dad's dying in a spirit of acceptance rather than acquiescence.

     In the Spring of 1996, Dad and Mom called each of us -- their ten children -- to tell us that Dad had advanced lung cancer.  They asked us to come home.  Once we had all arrived from near and far places, Dad shared his wishes to live and die at home surrounded by family, to have no extraordinary means taken to extend his life, and to have his son Tom (a carpenter like himself) build his "box." We all assured Dad we would honor each wish.  Additionally Dad wanted to gather folks in a spirit of gratitude and support.  

     Two days later we opened the gate leading into our backyard and one hundred relatives, friends, and neighbors poured through laden with food and flowers.  The gift Dad gave with his last hurrah party made visible and tangible to Mom and each of us the circle of support we belong to.  

     The dance circle widened with family and friends weaving in and out.  Some accompanied Mom and Dad to the doctor.  Others located blueprints for a pine "box" and clarified with the mortuary and cemetery what was necessary from their perspective.  The local hospice program was contacted and arrangements made to have hospice care when Dad needed it.  

     In time, the rhythm changed as Dad's energies waned and the months went on.  Emotions rose and fell in him and in each of us.  We were encouraged and inspired as Dad set the beat.  He got up every day, dressed, and entered into all with an attitude of gratitude, openness, and acceptance of whatever came his way.  He was the leader in the dance! We followed, and stepped up our pace to make real his wishes.  

     Dad's life, values, and experience of God were clearly expressed in his preference for simplicity, truth, and love of family.  It came as no surprise that he wanted a family member to build his coffin.  Tom, his carpenter son, responded to this invitation with awe and sadness, realizing it was an honor to fulfill his Dad's wish.  

     With care and deep love, Tom chose every piece of wood.  With the heart of a son and his creativity as a carpenter, he crafted the pine box.  Etched forever in my mind are the pictures of my Mom measuring Dad for his "box" and the picture of the two of them peering into the "box" after Tom completed it.  Influenced by their immersion in the natural rhythms of life on farms, they seemed able to embrace, even with humor, the reality of death.  

     On Dad's last Father's Day, he reminisced about the schools of dolphins that danced in the waves as he was steering the Liberty ship during his years as a merchant marine.  His storytelling evoked the creative spirit in family members, resulting in Michael and Catherine painting a silk panel to line the "box." Dad is depicted as the lead dolphin rising from the waters into Divine Light.  The dolphins following represent Mom, their children, and grandchildren rhythmically dancing in the waters.  When the panel was finished, Dad chose to hang it in a place where he could reflect on it daily! 

     Some of us sat with Mom and Dad and openly talked about the funeral service.  Dad's wishes were specific: keep it simple, play some piano and violin music, don't let anyone talk too long -- and by all means, celebrate! He thought it would be a good idea to place a tool in his "box." 

     "You never know, I might just need a little air," he joked.  

     Dad told us he wouldn't spend a night in a hospital bed.  It hadn't been necessary all along.  But on his final day the hospice nurse recommended we set one up in the house.  Each breath was so labored and difficult that raising the bed might help him.  Reluctantly we set one up.  

     Dad spent just four hours in the bed -- he always seemed to know what he really needed! Many of us kept vigil with him throughout the day and evening.  Those at a distance called and spoke to him on the phone.  When all of us had drifted through, finally letting go, Dad died, slipping into the Light! We experienced the physical Dad leaving yet his soul was still with us in the room.  We stayed with him and prepared his body with tears, song, prayer, and movement.  

     His funeral celebration was just as he wanted, simple.  Since he and Mom had instilled in each of us a down to earth work ethic, we knew we wanted to bury Dad ourselves by preparing his grave.  One of my brothers-in-law made the arrangements with the cemetery.  All of us pitched in and we put Dad to rest.  We could hear him say, "job well done, time to celebrate!" 

     My experience of Dad's dance with life/death was the longest dance of my life-nine months.  I cycle back into the rhythms frequently as circumstances remind me of Dad.  I do my best to keep in step and to keep breathing with the flow.  And I think about how Dad invited, in fact orchestrated, participation; everyone who chose to be involved, could be.  

     His intention and desires were so clear that our place in the dance was focused.  Each one of us needed to do our own inner work to recognize our parts.  Certainly, Dad's life was art.  His warm heart, welcoming spirit, and simple dignity gifted us all and created a joyous circle.  

     For this I am grateful.



Sharon Joyer is a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur and a co-founder of Earthome, a place in Oakland, California where the desire for reconnection with ourselves, each other, with God, and the whole sacred community is nurtured.  

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