October 8, 2018
My son, Darby, and I take a trip to the Pacific ocean, the ocean of peace. Our intention is to release the last of Michael’s ashes into this great sea, to forever blend the molecules of his Being into the vast and sacred water.
I bury some of his ashes in the Appalachians on the new moon in August. He loved those mountains, as did I, and I found a huge, ancient oak for the resting spot. In September, under the full moon, I bury most of his ashes in our garden along with several small mementos of his life. Now it is the new moon in October and I am with my son who loved Michael as a father, loved him in his own way. It is right that we are doing this together.
We find a perfect beach — almost no one around, tide pools, clean water, good waves. I know what I want to say, and I wade into the shallow surf until I feel I am standing exactly where I need to stand, water washing over my ankles, beautiful stones at my feet in the sand. With three handfuls of ashes I thank Michael over and over again for leaving me so well.
“Michael, thank you for leaving me physically safe and comfortable in my beautiful home.
Michael, thank you for giving me emotional sustenance, for giving me confidence, for giving me what I need to move forward, for believing in me.
Michael, thank you for supporting my psyche and my thoughts, for listening to my truth even when the words were hard to hear.
Michael, thank you for demonstrating the power of meditation to calm the mind and grow the soul. Thank you for teaching me to trust my spirit every single day.
Michael, thank you for dying when you did – leaving me enough time to get used to your going, and not so much time that I was unable to function.
Michael, thank you for loving me as I loved you.”
I cry throughout, my salty tears blending with the salty water. And now it is Darby’s turn. He has witnessed my ritual, and he does his own honoring with the ashes that are left. He is silent, though there are tears in his eyes as the last of Michael’s ashes are released to the sea.
On the way back from the ocean I find myself in a common argument with Darby, arguing that he needs to give me credit for hanging in there with Michael, for not leaving. I had told Darby of my thoughts about leaving Michael over a year ago. But Darby’s belief is that there is no real choice — you stay with your loved one when they are dying, even if the marriage has become relatively empty, has become friendship, has become physical caregiving, and emotional toll-taking. You simply stay!
I say that Michael understood the toll his illness was taking on me. In fact, Michael was the one who first brought up the idea of me leaving. “Babe, if you need to leave, if you just can’t do this, I understand. If you need to leave, then you should go.”
He said this early on in the process, and I knew he meant it. I was free to leave if I wanted to, but of course I couldn’t imagine doing such a thing at that time. And even then, I knew that we had both created and agreed to the situation, that we were both being tested in exactly the way we needed testing, and I stayed.
But I argue with Darby that there is a choice all along. That each day is a choice, that each act of giving care is a choice, that each moment is a choice that speaks to one’s ability to remain stable and kind while walking through hell.
Though my son seems to recognize the choice, he doesn’t really see it. How can he? He has never had to do anything like this.
He says he would do the “right thing.” For him, there is only one path, and it is the path of staying the course. I say that there are many who do not make this choice. Or that if they choose to stay, they stay with resentment, denial, anger and guilt. I insist that he give me credit for the choices that I made, and finally, reluctantly, he does.
But I can feel the reluctance and I come back to it. He says, “Mom, this is your issue. You keep bringing it up!”
And at that blessed moment, I see it all. For a moment, I see the entire crucible of my life with Michael. All the patterns, all the pain and joy and sorrow, all the ways in which I have tied myself into knots over his dying and death. And in that moment, that elusive clarity, I say, “I think I need to give myself credit.”
Now I am quiet, I take a deep breath, and I let this sink in. I’ve been feeling guilty. My child self has been back in her old mind-set, the one that says no matter what she does, it isn’t enough. It is never enough. And the cost of never being good enough is guilt. For almost six months now, ever since Michael died, I’ve been feeling this niggling and obscure sense of wrongness playing in the background, this sense that I didn’t do enough, or that I said too much.
I feel the horror of telling Michael that I am so unhappy that I have thought about living elsewhere, and now it really hits me. I thought it, and finally, as an act of desperation, I said it! I felt I was drowning, that my spirit was dying, that I couldn’t sustain our situation, and I told him. A crashing sense of regret and sorrow overwhelms me for a moment. How could I have said these things to this good man? To this great soul? How could I tell my dying friend that I was at a point in which I wanted to leave?
But then I know that if I hadn’t told this truth, if we hadn’t had the kind of relationship that would allow this level of truth between us, my soul would have shrunk inside of me and my heart would have closed. I would have stayed, but I would have stayed with a frozen heart.
It all becomes clear now. I’ve been feeling guilty and angry at myself for telling the truth! And feeling angry at Michael for putting us in this terrible and inescapable hell in which the truth I have to tell is painful and deep. I am angry that I dared to speak what my heart simply had to say.
Though I said all along that telling the truth, that being the emotional truth, was the most important part of Michael’s illness for me, I feel guilty that these were my feelings. But then I know that the only way I could survive his dying was to be honest about its effects on me and on us.
I think he knew this. I believe he understood this. I know he loved me, and to love me inevitably means being able to stand in whatever truth I glean and share from this sometimes difficult life.
I flash back again to his last moments on this earth, to his desperate struggle for breath, to his eyes rolling up in his head, to his last words: “love…you….” He died so well. He died with love in his heart and soul, and I was blessed enough to witness this love and feel it in myself. I am consoled by this.
For the first time since his death, I know that my guilt is simply my guilt. It wasn’t what Michael felt. It wasn’t what he took with him. He left this earth in love. And he wanted me to be happy. He said it many times, “I want you to be happy when I’m gone.”
And now, I begin to clearly allow this love to be what I am left with as well. There are tears rolling down my face as I feel into this truth. After almost three years, I finally let myself rest in peace.