Author: Jessica Hadari
Today for the first time I saw and touched a dead body.
Rushing to my first shift at the Guest House this morning, I had funny thoughts of myself making fun of people, who rush to get to their yoga classes. Images of yogis-with-road-rage shouting “Hurry up so that I can relax!” As I was running late for my shift, I felt the stress chemicals in my body and heard the part of my own mind mantra-ing, “I’ve gotta hurry up so that I can slow down…”
I arrived and was so blessed to be sent on several errands. Get coffee at the corner cafe, help in the kitchen.
Sharon, I was told, had resided in the Guest House for only a few days. She passed away in the night. Her family had agreed to the traditional Zen ritual bathing ceremony offered at the House. In preparation, I was to get the container marked “Ritual” from the basement.
So, so glad to be given these tasks. Here on my first day I knew that I had not slowed down enough from my commute to Slow Down…sit and be grounded with the residents, none of whom I had met yet.
I was made aware of another resident; a 30 year old man, with the same name as my beloved partner, and dying from cancer. I watched my mind make meaning and comparisons between my life and lives that could have been; between my imaginings of this young man’s life, and imaginary lives that he could have had.
Joining the women in the kitchen was such a pleasure. Working with food and washing dishes felt so good in way that are never as satisfying in my own home. The sounds of our feminine voices; me and the two other female volunteers, the women kitchen staff, the woman nurses assistant.
Jenny, my fellow newbie volunteer caregiver and I were asked if we wanted to witness the ritual bathing of the women upstairs. Yes. I was utterly honored to be asked. I had not realized until that moment that I had been worried I might never witness this ritual I had heard about.
As water was prepared for the ritual, we waited. At the dining table, I sat with Alice, who did not speak to me but after a while slowly pushed her newspaper toward me. I read her some of the headlines. Me and Jenny made up the conversation of four people, as she sat with Ben who also spoke little. Bugs and biofuel and medical marijuana – surely a Bay Area newspaper. It was hard for me to know if Alice enjoyed this, but she seemed content. I was aware of both my grace and awkwardness.
It was time for the ritual. We slowly walked up the lovely curling stairs of the victorian up to the room where Sharon lay. A shoji screen stood in between us and her bed. I slowly walked around and saw her hands had been placed together on her belly. She lay under the covers of the bed with a ceremonial fabric draped over all the layers; I would not know until later that her body had been dressed in the kind of neat and classy knit sweater and slacks outfit that my mother wears.
This was the first time I had seen a dead body. As I came to stand next to her, I was surprised to see her eyes, just barely open, were still so shiny. I assumed they would dull immediately with death. I also assumed that someone would close her eyes just like they do in the movies. No one did.
Jenny and I with the nurse practitioner leading the ceremony, Ron (or Rom? I could not remember his name) stood by the bedside. Hana and a man I had not met yet entered the room. I thought he was some kind of chaplain from the Zen Center.
I felt deeply grateful to be there – to have been invited to witness this ritual. Ron invited us all to take some deep breaths. He dipped a white cotton cloth in a watery mixture in a glass bowl standing on a draped table standing next to him. He handed this cloth to Jenny. He dipped one cloth for himself and instructed Jenny to caress Sharon’s face gently with the cloth. He did the same. I appreciated this loving gesture. I could see she had been a beautiful women – probably even stunning in her youth.
Ron dipped a third cloth and handed it to me. I could smell a spice or tea infused in the water saturating the cloth. He invited me to wash her left hand and arm. I felt the cool temperature of her skin which I expected from the little I know about death. I moved her hand and arm gently in a way that reminded me of my massage therapy training. I was glad that moving the limbs is something I have done many times. As I bathed her I noticed that many places on her skin looked very dark, almost bruised; I imagined that this darkening had occurred after her death. Her skin was soft.
I did not realize that the ‘chaplain man’ standing at the foot of the bed was actually Sharon’s son. He thanked her and reminisced about her dancing feet as he caressed and washed her perfectly pedicured foot. I was touched. I thought it was strange to share such an intimate ceremony with a man whom I had not even been introduced to. To bathe another person’s mother. I still do not know his name.
We existed in the place where names and jobs and roles are of no consequence.
Just face hands and feet. The ceremony was over with the ringing of a small singing bowl and a bow. I invited the son to help me and Jenny pick flower petals, one by one, from two of Sharon’s bouquets. We placed the bright orange, pink and yellow petals into three white bowls. I thought about how women love flowers. I imagined that Sharon might have “ood” and “ahhd” at the colors as wed all did.
Later on the back deck, the mortuary brought Sharon’s body out of the building. Bunches of white-ish hair with cool and warm tones of hair that had once been blond, stretched out from underneath the white cotton shroud and down the top-side of the gurney.
Her son placed the petals over her face and shoulders. I placed them on her dancing feet. The others placed them everywhere else. As they took her away adorned with flowers her son sporadically played the ukulele, telling stories here and there. I could feel him in an altered state, and was glad he was allowing himself his process.
I was glad I was allowing myself to be in mine.
Jessica Hadari is the founder of the Miracle Salon and the FEM Talks Alliance of Women Leaders, Educators & Healers.
Passionate about the "self-blossoming woman", for 15 years she has been privileged to lead countless women’s circles. Her greatest love? Watching women transform in the arenas of relationships, divine path and spiritual growth.
Each month she produces the Miracle Salon, a celebrated woman's wisdom networking event, as well as Women's Wisdom & Prayer Circles. Jessica immensely enjoys producing and collaborating around any women's event centered on emotional freedom.
She's a mother, writer, artist, hospice caregiver, master yoga teacher, holistic health practitioner, officiant, unconditional friend and voice of accountability in her Bay Area women’s communities.