Finding Hope, When All Else Fails

By Catherine Pastille

They were trying to save her life.

That’s why the attending medical staff had ushered me away from my mother’s bedside, leaving me to stand alone in the middle of the hospital corridor.

I felt as if an invisible umbilical cord was being shredded. It was quite strange. Although I was an adult, I became aware that there was something quite powerful that connected us, and I sensed it being pulled away from the center of my body – I could feel it, in physical way.

The doctors asked what I wished them to do – resuscitate? Use a ventilator? Let her go? I was at the center of what felt like an approaching storm – one I knew I could not avoid.

It was then that I saw her coming toward me with open arms; and when I did, I knew in an instant that this was no ordinary moment…

Understanding Hope

I had met Sister Lois twenty years earlier, while I was working as a youth minister for a local church. I was scheduled to teach a lesson on the “theological virtues” of faith, hope and love.

I knew what faith was. I knew what love was. But I was having trouble with hope. I didn’t know what hope was – not really.  So I spent my lunch hour asking the parish staff, including Sister Lois, about hope. I was disappointed with their answers.

A few days later, I got a card from Sister Lois asking God to bless me on “my quest for hope .”  Being young at the time, and perhaps feeling a little more transparent than I was comfortable with, I threw the card out, thinking that she had made more of my questions than they were worth.

Putting Theory Into Practice

Fast-forward a couple of decades: I’m doing my doctoral studies, reading anything and everything that will help me find a topic for my dissertation.

One day, as I read, I skim over the words “hope theory.” They stop me in my tracks.  Suddenly, my life flashes before my eyes. I see the moment I got the card from Sister Lois. Then I’m standing at a train station watching the trains pass by me, I see all the times that I had searched for hope since I met Sister Lois.

Then the train of memories comes into real time, swooshing past me, revealing pieces of my future, showing me that I should follow this track of hope. The whole thing takes no more than a few seconds, but it leaves me in shock. 

louise_pastille_mama_3.jpgWhen I’m able to pull my thoughts together, I go into my mother’s room; she has been homebound as a result of illness for several months. I tell her about this sudden revelation, and what I think I need to do with the rest of my life. As she has done so many times before, she says how wonderful it will be, and affirms that I should certainly follow this path.

(My mother, Louise Pastille, was a strong woman in so many ways. My father died at the age of 44, at Christmas time, leaving her with three children, of which I was the youngest and only 11 at the time of his death. She learned how to drive, went back to work and raised my brother, my sister and myself on her own.)
This chance encounter with the words “hope theory,” and my mother’s unconditional support, set me on a path toward hope at a time in my life when it seemed there was little chance of finding it.

Our Collective Best

My brother lived a day’s journey away, and although  we spoke frequently on the phone and he came anytime we needed support or help with difficult decisions, coping with my mother’s illness on a day-to-day basis was left largely up to my sister and me.

Also, as my mother grew more ill, we knew that having the only son in an Italian family arrive home without reason might cause her distress. She might interpret it as a signal that her situation was dire. So my brother visited only when there was a good reason – a holiday, a nearby conference, etc. so as not to upset her.

And, as my mother had made her fear of being placed in a nursing facility clear to all of us for as long as we could remember, we did our best to care for her at home.

Care Giving Takes It’s Toll

As my mother got progressively sicker, my sister and I took turns sitting with her through the night.

I became a consultant to allow for more flexible working hours, but, as I was the sole breadwinner for my mother, my sister and myself, I needed to devote as much time as possible to servicing existing clients and finding new ones – I had to keep revenue coming in.

I also did everything in my power not to put on hold or drop out of the doctoral program in which I was enrolled, because I felt if I did, I might never go back to it.

My mother’s illness lasted about eighteen months. The strain of balancing work, studies, and caring for her took its toll. I began to suffer anxiety attacks, and more than a few times found myself collapsed on the floor, weeping from exhaustion and grief, sometimes only moments before I had to go to meet a client. 

Even though my mother was like an angel throughout her illness (up until the moment she passed away), even though we all learned, loved, and laughed on the journey, despair was always only a breath or a thought away as we traveled this difficult road.
The week before my mother died, I went off to work expecting to meet her and my sister for an afternoon dentist’s appointment. When I arrived at the dentist’s office, however, the receptionist said my mother had called and cancelled. I rushed home to find her trembling and out of breath, my sister at her side.

She got worse as the day went on, but still begged us not to take her to the hospital. So we stayed at home until nightfall, when our fear for her life overcame our desire to abide by her wishes – we were compelled to call an ambulance.

At Death’s Door

After a quick assessment at the hospital, the doctors told us the prognosis was not good. The news left me weak.

I spoke to her again about the decisions we might have to make on her behalf when the time came for her to go, and then I left my sister with her and went home to try to get some sleep. I didn’t know then that this would be my last time I would talk with my mother.

I came back to the hospital in the morning to take my shift, and sent my sister home to get some rest in her turn.

As I turned to go into my mother’s room, I noticed a woman down the hall. She had her back to me, so I couldn’t see her face, or even her profile, but something about her seemed familiar. The card and the words surfaced from some deep memory, and I knew then that is was Sister Lois.

I called her name. She stopped what she was doing and turned around. I approached and we chatted for a short time.

I asked if she remembered me. She said yes.  She told me that she was at the hospital by coincidence that day, covering for a friend of hers who had a scheduling conflict.  I reminded her about the card, told her what had eventually happened, about my quest in hope, and that I intended to spend the rest of my life working in this field.  She was interested and supportive. 

I went back to my mother feeling happy to have had the opportunity to properly thank Sister Lois for the card and the words she had written so long before.

Within minutes of returning to her room, my mother went into cardiac arrest.

Hope Renewed

That’s when they escorted me into the corridor and asked me how far they should go with their efforts to save her. With my heart in pieces, I listened to the doctor’s urgent request for instructions and tried to recall my mother’s exacts wishes.

I struggled to remain standing, as overwhelming despair overtook me.  Frozen as I was in time and place, the only thing that broke into my awareness was the sight of Sister Lois, moving toward me with her arms open. She silently embraced me, gently moved me to a quiet space, gave me water, and created the room I needed to think – and suffer – and make a decision - fast.
There was no one on earth who could personify the presence of hope for me the way that Sister Lois could, and there she was – after twenty years – at the moment I needed hope the most.

I know that there are some who would say that I am simply stringing along a bunch of unrelated incidents; that “hope” is not a person or a force, it’s an idea or an illusion. Had I not gone through this experience at my mother’s deathbed, I might think the same thing.

But I lived these events. And I can tell you that whether or not there is reason to believe that “someone up there was looking out for me”, the fact is that the experience changed me. I now understand at the core of my being, that even when all else appears to fail me, help can come from the most unexpected people and places.

There Is A Way

It’s been five long and difficult years since my mother’s death.  I had to spend time recovering from the stress and strain that those eighteen months put on my body and mind. I had to grieve. I had to rebuild a life out of the ashes of my previous life that centered almost completely on caring for my mother.

I had to learn to be patient and present to my own suffering. My practice of hope did not make any of this any easier or lighter to survive.  It did, however, assure me that there was a way through, and that I would not be alone as I worked to regain my health and well being.
Through it all I remembered how, when I needed help most, it came to me in unexpected ways. I gradually began to open myself to possibilities that I could not see or feel during the difficult times.

Little by little, I learned the discipline that a life of hope requires. I learned to leave room in my heart and mind for the possibility that there may be more at work in any situation than I may know or believe.  I began to realize that one of the keys is to leave a little room for “the possible” in any situation and to be patient in trying times.

Hope Matters

As my life developed into a practice of leaving the door open for the unexpected with a sense of anticipation and curiosity, I began to see new dimensions to my life and work, new ways of imagining and intuitively knowing that which we cannot fully see but sense is real for us.

I began to integrate my life of hope into my work and leadership, and to witness unexpected and welcome changes in people’s way of being in the world, right before my eyes.
The future is no more certain for me now than it ever has been. The real difference that my practice of hope has introduced into my life and work is that I have a greater appreciation for what I can know, reason and prove, and a greater trust that there are many things that still lie beyond our understanding and vision.

In a way, I make space for hope in my life, the way Sister Lois made space for me that day in the hospital.  This gives my heart and spirit room to breathe, and to move beyond the limitations that sometimes seem to subtly box me in – in my mind.  Doing so is a daily discipline that becomes easier the more I practice.

Hope matters because it reminds us to keep the door open to the potential and possibility that lie just beyond the threshold of what we can clearly see at any given moment.  It teaches us to refuse to give up on ourselves and our ability to survive anything with the help of others – even when all else seems to have failed us.

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