Our trip to Florida isn’t anything like I thought it would be. We both hold the fantasy that Michael will magically feel better, that the ocean will buoy us up, that somehow we will recapture our old selves in our shared experience of this magnificent beauty.
In this other environment, this “pattern accelerator” as Michael calls it, almost nothing is as it has been before. I do most things alone because Michael really can’t go with me for our usual hours on the beach – walking, wading, picking up shells. I have to see the reality of the change from this year to our last trip two years ago. And now I see it.
Instead, Michael is sick much of the time. The doctor keeps him on one of his chemo medications and by itself it causes a huge amount of water weight gain. He is heavy and tired and sluggish. It’s a major effort for him to walk to the beach, and all we can really do together is talk, play scrabble, and watch the tube.
This is a real wake-up call! No matter how beautiful it is here, no matter how healing it is to be at the ocean, no matter how much we want things to be the way they once were, they have changed and our old selves are gone. About half way through our month away I open the door to another hard conversation about the future.
The day before we had seen a TED talk in which a man speaks about the American way of death. He says that though virtually everyone wants to die at home, six out of ten people die in the intensive care unit of a hospital. Another three out of ten die in some kind of assisted care facility while only one in ten actually ends up dying at home. Additionally, only one out of a hundred people actually know that they are dying as they die!
This really brought our death plans to the forefront, plans that I thought we’d made but that I realize now we haven’t made at all. The TED talk sits with me most of a sleepless night and I know we have avoided dealing with the painful and necessary stage of “pre-planning.” In the middle of the long night I meditate and know that we have to move forward.
Today I say, “I think it’s time we start to look at what the options are around burial.” I state this with a practiced sense of straight forward confidence, but inside I’m feeling a sense of unreality and fear.
Michael is the kind of person who responds to this suggestion without getting scared or defensive. I know he’s thinking about these same things but he isn’t talking about them. “What do you mean?” he says.
“I think we should contact some funeral homes and see what the options are.”
“OK,” he says. And that’s that. Since I’m the person in our relationship who does much of the online research around death and dying, I start getting information.
This means contacting the local funeral homes about the cheapest and easiest cremation possible, for this is what Michael wants. We’ve been shocked to discover that at one of our local mortuaries even cardboard box cremations run well over many thousands of dollars. But even with this surprise, I can’t help thinking, “Oh well, it’s all part of the process. This is the American way of death.”
The “pattern accelerator” that we’ve always found at this ocean continues to work overtime and we spend the day looking at what to do with ashes, with what remains of Michael after he’s gone. We look at the “Columbarium” in Oakland Cemetery, we think about selling the burial plots we bought 25 years ago since granite markers now seem beside the point. We look at planting a tree from his ashes. I spend several hours looking at online urns, glass art made of cremains, and cremation gemstones.
It’s a huge business, these mementos of a loved one’s passing. I find that for several hours I can let myself be involved in the beautiful gems and the luminous glass art that I can make of Michael’s ashes while he looks at large varieties of online urns. We talk about it and I show him some of the art that’s been made of ashes. It’s all very calm and chummy, even fun, and then suddenly I realize what we’re doing and it all comes crashing down. My heart is thunderstruck by the calamity of loss, by the looming emptiness of his passing.
“It’s all just stuff!” I say, and I start to cry. Michael knows exactly what I mean. He comes over and hugs me and we cry together. It is this being held that is real and raw and true.
But what I’m really being struck by is the whole idea of being able to “pre-plan” for death. We all want to have control, and it actually makes sense to think ahead, to have things done that can get done, to face into what the loss will mean in its small and necessary details.
But can any of us ever really pre-plan for death? I mean, I feel I’ve been preparing myself for a long time now. I’ve seen Michael’s death a thousand times. And I know that he has too. And yet, neither of us has any real idea of what his dying and death will be like. This is only my ego talking, only my ego trying to prepare me for that which is beyond control. And if this time has taught me anything it’s that there is no control over dying and death, and really, not much control over many of the events that happen to us in this life.
I feel my fear scrambling to protect me from the inevitable and I realize that the writing, the art, and the deep conversations are all an attempt to face into, and also to avoid, the pain. But there is no escape. When it actually happens, I have no idea how I’ll respond.
I ask Michael to write his obituary because there are things about him that I don’t know – and I certainly don’t know what he wants to have said about himself after he dies. He spends several days at this, and when I finally read it I know that it is a wonderful remembrance of his life.
So now we have ideas about cremation, about ashes, about obituaries. But there’s really no way I can “plan” for the event of his death, or for that matter, the event of my own. I find myself moving again into the vast realm of not knowing which seems to be the only true place to anchor myself. It’s a hard practice, finding an anchor in the Unknown, but as I keep learning, it’s the only practice worth doing. It forces me to choose to have complete faith in the process that’s unfolding.
I go back to meditation and I’m taken to a wide open field, opaque and yet brightly lit. There is a continuous fountain of evolving energies arising in this openness, unformed and wild. And, paradoxically, there is nothing here but the confrontation with mortality and the absolute certainty of love. In this place I am told that this is how the Mystery awaits us all, a sudden collapse of events bringing an end to the body, a bright loving light guiding the soul into the unknown.