by Cara Thornley.
This old Beatles lyric, accurately describes the compassionate view of the Northeast Kingdom VT Shambhala Community in coming together to care of their aging, sick and dying sangha members.
This “coming together” is recalled here, mostly from the perspective of Arthur Jennings, home health care and hospice nurse, long-time resident of West Barnet, VT, and sangha member, with additional information from Gerry Haase, Merle Thompson and myself.
(Arthur was one of two Shambhala nursing professionals (the other was Mary Beth Furr) who were working with Caledonia Home Health Care and Hospice at the same time Dr. Tim Thompson, an early sangha member, was involved in the development of the Hospice movement in the NE Kingdom.)
Arthur recounted his first experience of being part of the Shambhala community coming together to support a dying member, Ruthie Astor, an individual who passed in 2001 at Ashoka Bhavan, Karmê Chöling’s staff and guest house in Barnet. She lived on the bottom floor in what is now called the Astor Suite which came into existence so Ruthie could have a private bathroom and a living area for her friends.
As the home health care and hospice nurse who served the town of Barnet, Arthur was assigned to be the home health nurse for Ruthie, who happened also to be his Meditation Instructor, and his friend – with whom he had done many meditation programs. “We were in Khenpo Tsultrim’s programs together,” he recalls. “Those programs were the highlight of my year, and I had shared that with her.”
Ruthie required daily dressings for her cancers, and as her cancer got worse she required Hospice services such as oxygen and subcutaneous pain relieving injections. Arthur went from being her home health nurse to being her hospice nurse.
“I was in the full part of my hospice career and it was great to share that,” said Arthur, “not only with Ruthie, but with the greater sangha who was there to help.
“Many friends came to see her and stayed in her suite. In the early stage of her illness, they would have parties there and play games and drink. Ruthie was usually too tired to do much, but still there was a party going on around her and she just loved it… She was a very Padma lady and flirty with young men.” Arthur smiled at the memory.
“As it became obvious that she was going to go soon, people came and did shamatha meditation,” he remembers. “There were nine cushions around her bed… and the machines – an oxygen concentrator… making pish sounds… a pump making psst sounds… in the midst of it, people silently meditating.
“Toward the end of her illness when Ruthie became bed bound,” Arthur says, “I literally went ‘on vacation to Ashoka Bhavan’, taking 2 weeks of my own time just to be with her. I moved into a second floor room so I could be 100% available to her. For 2 weeks I was on-call 24/7 which meant when she got uncomfortable, I was there — I could take care of it…
“I had moved in with a whole household of people actually. Everyone else who was living at Ashoka Bhavan and the host of others who were helping. People were bringing food and other necessities that helped maintain the care environment. It had evolved into community care … it wasn’t just me…
“Other people helped her with personal caretaking: e.g., taking her to the bathroom, dealing with bedpans, washing her and things like that… Towards the end it was a full time job caring for her in the various ways a dying person requires.
“Ruthie found a spiritual advisor in Lady Konchok, Sakyong Mipham’s mother, who was living at Karme Choling during this time and had become close to Ruthie. She instructed Ruthie and those of us taking care of her on what to do as death came close.
“She told us we were to whisper in her ear…and say, ‘Ruthie, the time has come, you are dying, remember your guru, Trungpa Rinpoche, and remember Vajrayogini.’ (Vajrayogini was Ruthie’s primary meditation deity.) ‘It is very important for you to remember Trungpa Rinpoche and Vajrayogini.’
“Then we were to let her alone and come back about 10/15 minutes later and say: ‘Ruthie you are dying, we love you. It will be OK. Remember Trungpa Rinpoche, remember Vajrayogini.’
“As she was dying her breath became slow and irregular…and when it became clear she wasn’t going to breathe again…I whispered in her ear ‘Ruthie you died – remember your guru’… I pretty much kept to the script…Otherwise we just stayed silent and were with her.
“Ted Soares was there and, I think, Dia Ballou was also there.
A bunch of people had gone to a party and that’s why there were only the 3 of us. When they came back they started singing Khenpo songs, but Lady Konchok instructed us to maintain a silent environment rather than singing, or weeping, or doing practices out loud.
“Lady Konchok didn’t let us move Ruthie’s body from the bedroom to the shrineroom for 3 days because Ruthie’s heart remained warm (indicating that her consciousness had not left her body) which was a sign of an accomplished practitioner.
“Then Ruthie’s body was placed in a casket in the Ashoka Bhavan shrineroom on the main floor. We were kind of new at the whole dry ice thing to keep the body cool, but we did it.”
Sue Ellen Walters
The next sangha person to die that Arthur recalls was Sue Ellen Walters. She also was his home health patient and a fellow Khenpo student with whom he had done work transcribing Khenpo’s talks.
The night she died they took her to the Pavilion (a large free-standing shrine room then newly constructed at Karme Choling). She was the first sangha person to have her funeral at the Pavilion. They needed someone to stay with her body, so Arthur spent the night there. It has now become a tradition to have someone spend the night with the body. Mostly it is the Kasung who stay overnight.
”It was powerful to be out there alone in the dark with a body and the mice in the corners,” recalls Arthur. “I had some level of fear of the dark, but not too bad…because of all those years of retreat.”
The next death Arthur was involved with was Phil Sentner’s who died of liver disease…. He also had been part of the Khenpo sangha, and part of the care team for Mrs. Lindberg under Ann Cason’s coordination.
“Phil was ill for a long time, and Merle Thompson, the dekyong at the St. Johnsbury Shambhala Center, became a great friend to Phil. She was there for him totally,” Arthur remembers. “I was his home health nurse.”
“Phil died on the street, in his boots, so to speak,” Arthur says. “He was walking and fell and died in the street. We sat with his body in the morgue at Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital. We made it a point to go down and be there until he was moved to the Pavilion.”
“Susan Shaw who died in 2013 was a special case,” says Arthur. (Please see article about her on this site.) “I just loved her to pieces. She, too, was my Vajra sister and when I was nurse on duty, sometimes we would just lie on the bed and listen to music…I was so happy to be there. She was super organized and clear about everything – including the people she wanted around her.
“An administrative form used during Susan’s dying became a crucial scheduling tool for organizing care teams. Sara Demetry, also Arthur’s wife, and adept in using google docs, introduced an online scheduling format that enabled people to sign up for various functions, eliminating 90% of phone coordination, as well as allowing people to see, sign up for and download the schedule for fulfilling various needs which recur with each illness and death.”
This online volunteer format, enabled many persons to participate in caring for Arthur’s good friend, Michael Taney during his sudden, short illness and death in the fall of 2016. He got an official diagnosis of cancer early in October and died November 14 early in the morning. This was a particularly poignant loss for for Arthur because they had a very close friendship dating from the early 90’s.
Sara called a care team organizational meeting which was held in the home of Michael and his partner, Pam Keats. Arthur and Sara, the Dekyong and Societal Health and Well Being persons from the St. Johnsbury Shambhala Center, myself, Gerry Haase, Bill Brauer, and other concerned sangha attended. On the medical front, recalls Arthur, “I didn’t do so much duty with Michael. The medical oversight was assumed by a local Hospice doctor, Mary Ready.
“I was there just to hang out with Michael mostly,” said Arthur. “We were fast friends. In the early stages of his illness I would take him out for rides – going to Lake Willoughby. As he became bed bound I would just sit in his room with him. The last night or two I slept over at his house, so his partner, Pam Keats, could get some sleep. Again, It had become a 24/7 home care situation.”
The 24/7 home care needed for Michael accentuated the necessity of providing support for his primary caretaker and partner, Pam Keats, whom Michael gratefully referred to as his “ace” angel.
Help was needed with housecleaning, and preparation of meals, with running errands, doing over night shifts, and with periodically relieving Pam for a few hours during the day from her one-on-one caretaking duties which included coordinating the changing medications for pain management with Dr. Ready, administering the medications to Michael, changing his fentanyl patches and monitoring of oxygen, his diet, his heart rate, his blood pressure, along with managing his diet, etc.
The need for a more detailed interface between Pam and the community quickly became evident, and at her request I began functioning as her secretary, meeting with her regularly, reviewing support needs and visit requests. Cynther Greene took over from Bill Brauer, who had been coordinating the food needs of the household with volunteer cooks from the community. Bill had become the spiritual guide for both Pam and Michael. By the end of the dying process Bill was there almost daily, quietly sitting or talking with Michael. “He was irreplaceable during our journey,” Pam wrote to me. “He helped Michael to practice with, and to come to terms with his own death, and he helped me work with the idea that Michael was dying…”
There were many persons who wanted to see Michael and not enough time for all of them to do so. However, every request was answered and conveyed Michael and Pam’s appreciation, whether or not the request could be accommodated. In addition to his son, Gabe, and first wife Susan Taney, with whom Michael shared a close friendship, Michael had 7 brothers and sisters, all but one of whom came to see him. So from time to time there was a need for family transportation as well as transportation to and from local medical appointments and ones in Boston and Hanover, NH.
Gerry Haase managed all transportation requests – doing many of them himself. His final duty was arranging transportation for Michael’s body from his and Pam’s home to the Pavilion at Karme Choling and then to the crematorium.
“The night Michael died,” Arthur remembers, “Sara was on overnight duty and she called me early in the morning saying things were changing. I advised her who else to call, went over and was there when he passed.”
Michael’s body, in full Kasung officer’s uniform, lay in the Pavilion where his funeral was held. In addition to his immediate family it was attended by a host of friends, and 5 of his brothers and sisters, and their families, some of whom spoke and sang. Acharya Michael Greenleaf led a Shing Kam Pure Realm of Shambhala service, and Arthur was the shrine attendant….
The pall bearers, his son, some of his brothers, and local kasung, helped transfer his body to the crematorium in St. Johnsbury where the next morning family and friends again joined together. This time to sing the Shambhala Anthem as the oven blazed.
“Stephen, another sangha person who had been suffering from a long term illness died in the early spring of 2016 at his friend’s Susan Taney’s home in St. Johnsbury. That was a good room for him to die in,” said Arthur, “since he built it.
“I did a lot of volunteer work with him, although I was not his hospice nurse. I would go over on Tuesdays, my day off, and sit with him. There were daily shifts which Sara scheduled to cover the time that Susie was at work…
“Toward the end in the evenings,” Arthur continued, “I slept on the couch in the room with him . On Stephen’s last night I went and got Susie up when I knew he was dying…
“After he died his home health aid came and washed him. And then I left and went to work that day…
Greg McNally, another long term sangha person, who has become keeper of the community caskets (he stores two Vermont Pine caskets between uses in his barn) brought the larger one and helped put Stephen’s body in it. (Dry Ice was no longer necessary since by the time Stephen passed, it had been replaced by a better product called Techni Ice which Gerry Haase bought on Amazon. It works, is not toxic, and is re-useable since it can be stored in the refrigerator.)
During the next three days, sangha members came and practiced around the body. Then Acharya Greenleaf, aided by shrine attendant Patricia Anderson, performed a sukhavati for Stephen in the beautiful sun room which Stephen had built and in which he died. The next day Greg transported his body to the crematorium in his pickup truck. As Stephen’s body was transferred into the oven, we sang the Shambhala Anthem just as we had done for Michael not too long before.
I asked Arthur at the end of our interview, why he thought there had been so much focus on death and dying in our aging community, rather than on activities like co-housing, for example. He talked about the small, but close knit sangha in the Northeast Kingdom, that found much of the support sought through co-housing in “coupling relationships” and with sangha friends.
“We are a relatively small group of long term students of Buddhism and Shambhala who have long relationships with the people around us. The only thing we all have in common is Shambhala Buddhism… It brought us together and here we are, he said.This is a long established sangha, with friendships and intimacy. So when a person becomes seriously ill, helping them happens spontaneously… How could I not have helped Michael? It’s basic friendship.”
He reflects, “I was reading last week that loneliness is a big heart risk factor…— as big as smoking… or lack of exercise. We are really lucky to have community… friends to talk with about things that matter… have dinner with, …play with. And these are the people we are going to help when they need it… Talk about enlightened society… We end up sharing life and death. It’s a good thing we have each other!”