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Bill's Gift An interview with Kay Engelsmann

by Francisca Saavedra

I met Kay Engelsmann at a Cafh meeting in New York City in 1987. There were many people at that meeting, but she is difficult to forget. What I remember most is the way she put people at ease and made them laugh. A number of years later, I learned that her son, Matt, and husband, Bill, had been diagnosed with cancer; her son subsequently recovered, but her husband died. The next time I saw Kay was in Wildomar, California, in 2003. Once again, she was telling stories and making people laugh. She also talked of her experience with her husband's illness and how, since his death, she had turned her home in St. Louis into a retreat house. As she was describing this new venture, I thought to myself that it might be helpful for others to know how she related to the death of a loved one and the way she was able to transform that event into an act of offering. This interview is my attempt to share what I learned from Kay, and especially how her relationship with Cafh, her spiritual path, has kept her so engaged with life.

F: You told me, Kay, that after the death of your husband you wanted to build a retreat house. I learned that you did indeed do so by turning your own home into a retreat house. How did you do that? And what made you want to do that?

K: The retreat house is a real testament to my husband, Bill. Though at the time I could not have put it into words, I see in retrospect the events that led to its becoming a reality. I had often talked about the idea in a theoretical way-having a retreat house where people could step into a quiet space and discover themselves. Over the years I have attended annual retreats in Cafh and, though this was a part of my life that Bill did not directly share, it was a real part of what made our marriage unique and supportive. He accepted completely my spiritual path in Cafh.

The idea of the retreat house originated with Bill. A month before he died, we were enjoying an evening together in front of the Christmas tree when he suddenly said, "You will build a retreat house when I'm gone." I was taken aback and then gave my usual response that, first of all we couldn't know that he would die before me as I could die in a car accident and secondly, I had no idea what I would do if he died first. He went on to say that he knew I loved giving retreats and that he wanted me to know that if I did decide to buy or build a retreat place, it would be possible. We never discussed the subject again.

Bill was a business man, and when he learned that his lung cancer was terminal, he simply began going about the business of putting his life in order for dying. He didn't want his death to be a burden to those he loved, so he took care of the details of his death, funeral and legal matters. This was all done in the exact business style of a true Chief Executive Officer; he was in charge and the details were simply handled. Financially, he made sure that there would be no detail left undisclosed.

I remember sitting alone in the house, months after his death, feeling it was time to do something. But what could I do? For the last few years, every act and thought had to do with care giving, and now that that part of my life seemed to have ended, where was I to go? I looked at Bill's chair and thought of him that last Christmas, when he was so happy, and I recalled his words about the retreat house.

Could I actually buy or build one? What would it be like? These were some of my thoughts as I walked around the very large condo that was our home. I thought that the condo was too big for one person and perhaps I should sell and buy a smaller one. I walked to the lower level and the idea came to me. Could this be the retreat house?

First, I had to see if it was feasible to make a second full kitchen and add another bathroom. The person who had helped with the original condo came to the rescue and helped to make the idea become a physical reality. Gradually, the condo became a retreat home.

The result is a balanced environment. The first floor has a guest room with bathroom, a kitchen, dining room, living room and a separate area with a door that leads to my private living quarters with master bedroom, bath and office area. On the lower level, there are seven beds and two full bathrooms, a full kitchen, a meditation/conference room and a large meeting room with audio visual equipment and plenty of space for groups to meet. I was even able to find a labyrinth on canvas that can be unfolded in the large meeting area for people to walk.

Walking around the house after Bill died I had been aware of how peaceful and calming it felt. I knew other women who said they had to move after their husband died as it was too painful to remain in the same house, but this was not my experience. When I think of Bill, I have to smile. So as you see, it was natural to make this the retreat house. After all, it was Bill's idea and his work had made it possible.

F: Beautiful. Now that your house is the retreat house, how do you manage to have a personal space? How does it feel to have given to others something that was yours?

K: As you can see, the floor plan of the condominium is well suited for having a retreat house separate from my living space.

The challenge became going through every room, searching every nook and cranny, removing all personal belongings or leaving them in place for others. This clearing away of personal things became an exercise in learning about my attachments and way of thinking. I used this as an exercise by consciously looking at each item, making sure to acknowledge my responsibility to each possession, and finding a new and more appropriate home for it. In some cases, pieces of furniture or old "relics" were passed on to my three children or other members of the family. Also, since our marriage was a second marriage for us both, many items belonging to Bill were rightfully returned to his daughters and family. I felt that was what he would have wanted me to do. Everything else went to shelters, recycling centers, and other such places where they could be used.

I must say the apartment works very well. I put a dead bolt on the bedroom door and, at that moment, it truly became an apartment. I am the proud owner of a new cat that is very happy staying with me in the apartment. I prepare all my meals in the kitchen on the first floor, but my roommate, Terra, the cat, and I are usually in the apartment.

Actually, I was thinking the other day that I have become the caretaker for the retreat house. I guess one could say I went from being a caregiver to a caretaker. There is a noticeably different feeling when I'm in the house now; the rooms other than my apartment no longer feel mine.

The truth is that nothing is actually "ours;" we are all caretakers while we are here. It is a good feeling to see others enjoy the environment created for retreats. I have attended retreats on my own spiritual path for dozens of years now, and I cannot begin to express how very special each one was for me. It is not really the surroundings that make a retreat special, but the atmosphere that allows one to enter a deep, quiet interior place. Retreats are often seen as "leaving the world outside" and doing "inner work." That is essential work in this busy world and a gift when a place, time and other souls gather to share this work. For me, being able to share something so vital to my life is not really giving but taking.

F: Tell me, Kay, how does the retreat house relate to your spiritual path in Cafh?

K: Well, for one thing it helps to keep me balanced and focused. You see, every morning when I leave the "apartment" and step out into the rest of the house, I am reminded that it is not mine. My spiritual path helps me to realize that nothing is really ours and that everything is temporary. Our lives are temporary, but while we are here on this planet we try to do the best we can with the tools we have been given. And at this particular time, the tool given to me happens to be this house-a house with too much space for one person but space that can be utilized in a way that can be useful for others.

Let me give an example: The other day I was to pick up a cancer patient who was coming from a treatment center and needed a ride because his wife had a doctor's appointment at the same time. I wasn't sure what to do with him while we waited for his wife to call. He told me, "I don't want to go home yet. Maybe we could get a cold drink and just talk somewhere." I thought of going to a park but was afraid it might be too hot outside, so I asked if he would feel comfortable going to my house, which was not far away. He thought that was a good idea.

Now I have to say that he is a little younger than my husband but about the same size, has no hair and walks with an oxygen tank, just like Bill. The resemblance is eerie! We walked into the house and he went immediately to the living room and sat down in Bill's chair. At first, it kind of took my breath away, but then I smiled and saw it as a gift. He sat there and talked and talked about his life, his children, his cancer and his fast-approaching death. I just listened and felt privileged that he shared so much with me. Later, when we were driving to meet his wife, he said, "I can't tell you when I have felt so comfortable and had such a wonderful afternoon."

The spiritual path of Cafh teaches us participation and the importance of living our ideal, and in this moment I felt I understood. All I did was to make myself available so a fellow human soul could share a part of his life in its closing moments. Therefore, I believe you could say the retreat house enhances my spiritual life and gives me a chance to put my ideal into practice. It seems like I am giving, but believe me I am receiving much more in return.

F: I imagine that you could have put your spiritual ideals into practice in many other ways. So I wonder first, what needs did you perceive in your environment that made you want to offer the retreat home? And second, in which way is this retreat house helping to solve those needs?

K: That's an interesting question. It is true that there have been needs met and activities held that were unimagined at the time the retreat house was created. Perhaps it (the house) is evolving. One example came after 9/11 and shortly before the invasion of Iraq. At that time the spiritual director of Cafh sent us words of urgency and encouragement. He reminded us that these difficulties were the result of the divisions in the world and that we all are part of both the problem and solution. The word "division" really leaped out at me. You see, at the time I received his message, I was preoccupied by a growing upheaval in our neighborhood. There was a conflict raging over whether to close the entrance gate or leave it open. This conflict was fueled by fear and was getting out of control. There were numerous meetings held in an office building where neighbors ended by yelling and calling each other names. So I asked myself, "What is my part in this turmoil, and what can I do to help?" I offered the retreat house as a place for future neighborhood meetings. My hope was that its environment and the fact that people were being invited as guests would change attitudes. And indeed it has!

The second example deals with diversity. A Hopi medicine man named Emery and his family, who refer to themselves as Keepers of the Land and who live in the traditional way on the Third Mesa in Arizona, stayed as guests for four days and nights at the retreat house. Emery had been treating cancer patients in Tucson. He and his family were invited to the area by a woman concerned for a friend who had recently been diagnosed with cancer. It was very interesting what happened. Hearing of his visit by word of mouth, and also drawn by a certain amount of curiosity, people came to meet the Hopi family. The medicine man and many in the health profession, including an oncologist, shared their knowledge and experiences. This gathering provided a real opportunity for learning across cultures and made us realize that we can all learn from one another.

The retreat house is available for whatever needs arise: in Cafh, in the community, with families and friends and in ways unknown. You see, the trick is to live in the moment, pay attention to life and respond to its requirements.