Tom was just one of the many Residents we served at our Guest House in the past year. Because of the generosity from donors like you, we were able to serve Tom at end of life with no cost to him. Tom’s generosity to others throughout his life prevented him from being able to afford the cost of care at the Guest House. Had he not been cared for at the Guest House, Tom’s prognosis would have placed him with in-home hospice care, under the supervision of a single hospice care nurse for one hour, twice a week. Tom’s final days could have ended in an acute care setting, while connected to an array of machinery. Yet, Tom’s final days were the opposite of that, full of comfort and happiness complemented by the compassionate care of Zen Hospice Project caregivers.
One of our Guest House nurses shares her story:
Tom lived a life of service as a nurse and a chiropractor by profession, and as a valuable friend, mentor and teacher. He touched many, many lives with grace and healing. After his intense life-long devotion to the well being of other people, it was especially meaningful for him to receive the nurturing and care from us at Zen Hospice Project.
In the homey warmth of the Guest House, he was able to deeply receive the love of his friends, family and former colleagues, and of our nurses, volunteers, cooks and staff. This was a profound process of letting go of old identities and roles to embrace being loved as the beautiful, whole human he was. A radiant person, Tom glowed with gratitude at the Guest House, often tearing up with thankfulness for his lovely room and for the attentive love and care from our staff.
Tom loved us right back, adding to the joy and deep meaning of our time caring for him. He was able to truly live, love, enjoy, heal and grow, right until his last breath with us at his bedside in the Guest House. We are all grateful for our time with Tom and forever touched by him.
Tom touched us and left everyone with heart-filled gratitude to have met him and his family.
All of us at Zen Hospice Project thank you for your support and generosity with hope that you will continue to give, so that we can continue to help more people like Tom at end of life. Please support Zen Hospice Project and people like Tom. Give today! No gift is too small.
A group of four women kneel down at a circular wooden table dispensing petals from a bowl into circular patterns. One starts the pattern with a center of peonies. Another adds an exterior border of ombre rose petals that fade from orange to blush. The others fill in with patterns of color and texture, riffing off one another like silent jazz musicians. They dispense each piece of the mosaic, placing each flower one at a time until it is complete. Then they step back to take in the spontaneous creation: a flower mandala.
These women are volunteers at Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco. Through The Bloom Project, they collect and arrange donated flowers for Resident’s rooms and common spaces at the six bed Victorian Guest House in Hayes Valley. Once they are done with the arrangements, all flowers that are deemed too wilted are used to create a mandala on the small wooden deck in the backyard.
Inspired by traditional mandalas in India and Tibet, the practice developed as a way to repurpose the unsold flowers at the end of the day. The mandala is unique each week based on whatever flora remained, and is allowed to blow in the wind and decay as the week progresses–a silent reminder both of beauty and vulnerability.
I made my first flower mandala on June 4th, 2013, the day my partner, Denali, left to climb K2, the second highest mountain in the world. I had just started my own floral business that spring–a wooden pushcart a friend had built for me, loaded with buckets of flowers out on Valencia Street in San Francisco.
On the sunlit wooden floor of our apartment, surrounded by everything in boxes in preparation for his trip, I laid out striped tulip petals in a circle about my arms width across. Within the circle, I placed the heads of four lacy flowers, forming a diamond. Then sage leaves in clusters of three beside each head. On grew a pattern as each flower revealed it’s fading beauty converging in the center.
I told Denali I would make one mandala each day he was gone, thinking of them as prayers to keep him safe. We had met as students at California College of the Arts three years before and after graduation we had made plans to reunite after his climb to teach English abroad together. In the weeks after he left, I finished moving out of our apartment, closed up shop, and was beginning the process of saying goodbye to friends and favorite places.
As their liaison, I received phone calls via satellite every few days with updates on their progress I would then email out to friends and family. Each contact was a relief. He told me of the people of Pakistan and how friendly they had been, and of the flowers he collected along their trek that reminded him of me.
As their window for summiting approached, I watched my phone anxiously as days crept by without a word. I would lay awake at night thinking of the last time we talked. He described the softly falling snow as if it was magic. From the first day we met, that was always how he talked– constantly in awe of the world around him.
Four days later, after 52 mandalas, I got a call from a dear climbing friend confirming my worst fears had come true. Denali and his father had disappeared in an avalanche in the middle of the night. Sherpas looked for their bodies but they were never found.
I remember hyperventilating, repeating “what am I going to do?” over and over. I remember staying up all night, fighting through waves of shock and exhaustion. I remember not being able to eat and a sharp pain that settled in the center of my chest and remained for months. But I also remember resolve. “We have to live the best lives we possibly can for him,” were words that came out of my mouth as if from somewhere else. I thought of his body. The smell of his skin and the placement of his freckles were like a map leading me home. Something once so familiar, was now frozen on a mountain on the other side of the world.
From there my memory gets blurry. It was as if I was haunted, or looking backwards through a prism. Without a place to live, I moved from couch to couch, picking everything up and heading to the next spot as soon as something didn’t feel right, and almost nothing ever felt right. It was three months before I cooked a meal for myself, another six before I landed a job at a florist in Santa Cruz.
The first time I smiled to myself and really felt the lift of joy again was the following spring as I walked through a field of dew dusted roses. The feeling was immediately followed by guilt. “How could you be smiling at a time like this?” I thought. Yet there was something new rising to the surface.
The gravity of my loss felt immense beside the ease of flowers. I thought of how Denali had lived each day with delight and whimsy. The words that came to me the night he died came again, “I must live the best life I can for him.” I had been constantly comparing the life I was robbed of to life I now lived, failing to see the value in each moment.
It occurred to me that a person cannot will not know true happiness unless they have felt true sorrow, and the depth granted to me by my experience could be a tool rather than a burden. I no longer wanted to be a victim of my circumstance. It was time to start remaking my life into something new.
During my shift at the flower shop the next day, I collected all the damaged petals and flowers too old to sell. After closing, I composed the first mandala in months on the floor of the entry way, admiring it just long enough to take a picture then sweeping it away as I continued my cleaning tasks.
I began making them again each day, no longer as prayers for preservation, only as meditations on transience. I learned new depths to the language of flowers—how unique each petal, and yet how vulnerable. In their beauty they retaught me how wondrous life could be. And when they wilted, they taught me how to let go.
That year I made 101 mandalas. The final one was created on the anniversary of Denali’s death death, on a solo backpacking trip in Alaska in view of the mountain he was named after. I moved back to San Francisco shortly after to be surrounded by all the things that I once shared with him. Only they weren’t ours anymore. They were my own, and I was returning to the city as someone new.
My story had turned out so differently than I had imagined. Not only in losing Denali, and almost more surprising to me, in how beautiful my life had become despite having lost him. I wanted to share my story with others who were drowning in grief as I once was. I wanted to tell them that their lives were far from over.
It wasn’t long before I heard about Zen Hospice Project’s use of flowers in the end of life care. Flowers are an important part of the services provided at this special home for the dying. Flowers welcome guests at the door, are placed amongst food on dining trays and in Resident’s rooms as well. And when a Resident passes away, as we’re wheeling the body out through the garden, heading for the gate, we pause for what is called the Flower Petal Ceremony. Anyone who wants – fellow Residents, family, nurses, volunteers, staff, the hearse drivers too – shares a story or a song or silence, as we sprinkle the body with flower petals.” From their first moment in the Guest House to their last, the Residents are accompanied surrounded by flowers.
Zen Hospice Project’s attitude towards death as a part of life worthy of attention and respect felt like the only thing that made sense to me. I signed up for the Volunteer Caregiver training, and soon was holding the hands of Residents who were dying, caressing their hair and telling them they are loved. I was able to care for strangers in the way I wish I could have cared for Denali.
Before my bedside training was even complete, I was asked to help with the flower donation program led by The Bloom Project. I began collecting flower donations and teaching volunteers how to clean flowers in various states of freshness and decay, as well as the joy of flower arranging. When it came time to toss flowers deemed unusable, I could see a familiar concerned look on the faces of the women around the table. I instantly knew what to do.
I asked the volunteers to collect the heads of the older flowers in a bowl, and once we were all cleaned up for the day, I led the group over to a low circular table in the Guest House garden. I started in the center with a cluster of floppy white lilies forming a circle. Another woman scooped up pink rose petals from the bowl and formed a ring around the lilies. And just like that one by one the other ladies grabbed handfuls of flowers, placing them in patterns around each other. For so long I had been making mandalas on my own, It was magical to step back to watch the hands of strangers come together as if they had been doing this for years.
The Guest House garden has become a sanctuary for me and so many others who pass through. It is here the mandalas live on.
MaryEllen came to the Guest House after retiring from a long career in the hospitality industry. She became interested in cooking as a child, playing chef in her best friend’s kitchen. While cooking grew into a serious hobby, for her career she set her sights on a profession of psychology. During research in preparation for a Master’s Thesis in Experimental Psychology, she found herself wrestling with the idea that she had chosen the wrong field. Ultimately she decided she could do the most good for people by cooking for them; so she left graduate school for a restaurant kitchen. As a chef, MaryEllen worked in restaurants from Washington State to Washington, D.C. During the Clinton administration she worked at the Blair House, the President’s Guest House.
Shortly before relocating to San Francisco, a dear friend from MaryEllen’s early days in the restaurant industry experienced the tragic loss of an infant child. The story of a volunteer dispatched with the EMTs, who assisted her friend’s family following the accident, inspired MaryEllen to seek a possible second career in trauma intervention. This brought her to the Mindful Caregiver Education program. A year later, while on a Buddhist Pilgrimage in Nepal and India, she met a long time Zen Hospice Project volunteer who recruited her to come to the Guest House kitchen, first as a volunteer, then as staff. Instead of leaving one career behind to embark upon another, in her service at the Guest House MaryEllen aspires to combine the spiritual practice central to her life, with the cooking skills acquired over the course of her career.
“At the Guest House, our intention is to cook to comfort, not to cure.” MaryEllen is just one person on a team of more than a dozen cooks and volunteers in the kitchen. Each meal, each snack, each tray is prepared specifically for a particular Resident. Whoever is serving in the kitchen prepares and plates the food in a way to acknowledge the Resident’s tastes, while also reflecting the comforting and joyful memories of food, even as their physical capacity to eat diminishes. A tray of lovingly prepared food nourishes every person involved in the care of the person it was prepared for.