The Great Unknown

Then I return to the Great Unknown – this pall of death thrown over our daily lives – and weirdly, at least today, I’m grateful for it.

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April 22, 2018

Michael is finally home from the hospital. There is relief and grief in equal measures, and there is also so much to do.

Two days ago I called Hospice and within 6 hours we had a hospital bed, a commode, a wheel chair, a bath bench, a nurse, a doctor, and morphine. He’s been in so much pain – two days ago it was a “7” on a 10-point scale. Much more than I realized, or that probably anyone realized. The hospital did not give him anything for pain other than Ativan. It would allow him to sleep for a few hours but then his gut pain would waken him again.  Now we have morphine to dim the pain, thank god, and he can truly rest.

He has a large skin tear on his arm from when his Picc line was removed and no matter what we do, it is leaking fluid all over his shirt. Transferring him from his lift chair to the hospital bed was agony. Even with support, he could barely stand. As we moved the chair out of the way, and the bed into place, he was moaning loudly and almost falling from his temporary seat. Getting him into the new bed was terrifying. He couldn’t lift his legs, and when I lifted them he shouted out in pain.

So far each of the three days since he’s been home are filled with tasks, seemingly hundreds of them, and the little tasks never seem to end. Last night I heard him groaning at 3am and I was up giving him morphine and Ativan which allowed him to sleep until 7.

Empty the urinal, clean the container, bring it back. Clean the C-Pap, let it dry, reassemble it. Set up his leg therapy machine and put one swollen leg at a time into it for an hour each time. Get some coffee and food into my belly and empty the dishwasher. Bring a bit of applesauce so that he can eat three spoonfuls of it and be done. Read and answer the most pressing emails. Now he wants some yogurt but a spoonful sets him into gut cramping once again. His pain is a “5.” More morphine. But the pain continues. Add some Ativan. Now I can wash my face, brush my teeth, and get dressed. It’s 10am already! Finally he sleeps and I can write for a few minutes.

As Michael and I deepen into coming to terms with death, I realize we are also deepening into the terms of dying. And the terms of dying are manifold!

Since Michael’s second transplant, he simply hasn’t recovered the way he was supposed to. Of course there’s no actual “supposed to” here. There’s just reality. And the reality is that his gut hasn’t healed yet and he’s in a fair amount of pain. Any food, even water, brings on tremendous gut cramping and a squeezing pressure. Thankfully, morphine makes a huge difference in his level of comfort, and today he eats some broth and yogurt and applesauce — not much, but much better than it’s been.

At this point there is no way to know how sick Michael may become, and there is no real timeline for this sickness – he could live for weeks or months, or even longer. It’s possible that he will recover from his transplant, and that he will return to his pre-transplant state in which he drives the car, shops for groceries, eats very slowly, and spends hours writing and reading. He would still be tired and there are many things he won’t be able to do It’s not been a great life for either one of us, but it’s not unbearable either.

This could be followed by the easiest death – a sudden ventricular arrhythmia. One moment Michael would be existing how he is right now, and then within a heartbeat, he would be dead. It is said to be swift and painless. This is our favorite death scenario but it presupposes that we have some control over how things go down. I’m learning not to believe in that.

Another scenario is that his heart becomes progressively weaker and he eventually dies of heart failure. From what I can tell, this can be a hard, long death. Gradually the heart becomes more and more congested and unable to pump blood adequately. The person becomes weaker and frailer and finally ends up in bed struggling to move and breathe. A difficult death by any standards.

There’s also the heart attack scenario – not painless, but certainly relatively swift. I remember a year ago when Michael talked about a heart attack as a “good end” and how much this upset me at the time. Now I look at it and realize he was right.

Other organs could fail instead and kidney failure is a common way to go in his disease. It is another slow and laborious dying – a decline in functioning on many levels with fatigue, swelling, problems breathing, and increasing toxicity.

Currently, it’s his bowel that is the problem. It is raw and painful and eating is difficult. Perhaps his bowel will never really heal and it will become unable to function. A hard death, but relatively rapid.

Regardless, it’s all fairly grim and I can’t help wondering what Life has in store for both of us.

No matter what, it’s a real balancing act. If Michael goes off chemo, which he is saying he will do, then the disease will likely progress more quickly. But at the same time, he won’t be fighting the side effects of chemotherapy, so there’s a possibility that he’ll actually feel better overall. Or not.

The truth is no one knows. No one can tell us much of anything other than what the latest test results mean at any given time. Would he have a longer life if he stays on chemo? Quite possibly. But the quality of life is low. And maybe the life quality is low no matter what he decides to do. It’s all a trade-off.

We are walking in the Land of the Unknown. There may be sign posts here but we only seem to see them in retrospect. There aren’t any real directions. There’s simply an awareness that a particular path has curved, or made a sharp right angle, or come to an end. We walk a path until it looks like it’s run out, then we look to see which path might have opened before us, and we walk on.

What we’re realizing is that in the Great Unknown, it’s all a dance of maintaining a sense of balance while watching the body become increasingly unbalanced. Trying to find the highest quality of life while one is dying becomes a huge guessing game — seeking the path that leads to a “good” death while knowing that death is the only outcome.

The biggest Unknown for Michael is death itself. His faith is being tested at the most basic level and he’s constantly up against his real experience of the higher spiritual realms versus the fear that there’s just one big Nothingness. He wonders if perhaps all of the meditations and synchronicities and guidance that he’s received are merely manifestations of an active, open, and creative mind.

This vision arises within him from time to time but I always talk about faith, how strong my faith is, and how I know that his faith is just as strong. He knows I am speaking the truth, and it calms him. It calms us both.

“I can feel my body wanting to cling to life,” he says. “It’s my body’s experience that doesn’t want to let go. That, and you. It’s hard to let go of you.” Then, two weeks ago, his body Deva tells him it is ending, tells him that it can’t function much longer. And I tell him I can make it on my own, and I can.

Then I return to the Great Unknown – this pall of death thrown over our daily lives – and weirdly, at least today, I’m grateful for it. I am being taught by Death. It is teaching me about the depths of love; about the unbreakable bond built of truth, compassion, and respect; about the deep comfort of real connection. I know that when I pass, Michael’s spirit will be there to greet me just as I will be there to greet others when they pass.

In the midst of all of this, I realize I am serving the Beloved. I am serving Love Itself. I am enfolded within Its mystery and Its blessings. My heart is so open that I cry over facebook posts, over the look on my husband’s face, over the kindness of a neighbor. He calls me “my love.” He’s never called me this on a continuous basis, but now I am his love. And I cry when I hear him say this.

As with my heart, Michael’s heart is more open than it has ever been, and this is what he came here for! Finally, as the psychic said, he is learning to receive, and he is flooded with gratitude. He cries when I read emails to him, he cries when Hospice shows up with all of their kindness and their bounty, he cries when his son does yet another thoughtful thing such as helping him brush his teeth. It’s all love now, nothing else. It’s all love.

 

Michael Speaks

It was the moment when my physical vehicle, my body Deva, recognized that it had an endpoint, and that was a certainty.

Michael

April 18, 2018

Dear All,

I thought it would be a good time to hear from the dying one, the other person wandering through this grief stricken landscape. My words won’t be so eloquent or as emotionally honed as Candida’s, for these are where her strengths lie. However, I will present as best as I can.

I remember the moment of panic that Candida described. It was the moment when my physical vehicle, my body Deva, recognized that it had an endpoint, and that was a certainty. At that moment, I was retching violently, and unable to breathe. Those sensations, coupled with the primordial realization of finality, propelled me physically to a place I had never been before. It did galvanize me, however, to action on the physical plane. I was sure to have my DNR order entered into my chart, and also I understood that it was time for what may be final visits from loved ones.

Returning to my center, I felt a great sense of love and compassion for the body. This old friend, who had taken me through almost 68 years of life, was reaching its end. I wept long and hard for it that day. What then followed was the visualization that Candida described so well.

I am left with a new clarity, peace, and abiding love. For my body, for my life, those I love, and for Life itself. I feel ready for whatever comes next, and for whatever duration that entails. I am grateful for all these gifts, and for all those who have supported and witnessed. I am truly blessed. There is infinitely more to say, feel, and process, but all that can be done in Silence.

 

————-
Per me, nihil possum facere.

(Of myself, I can do nothing)

The Dim Fog of Grief

We should have to stare death in the face, we should know its horrifying look, its ominous smell, its moaning sound as well as we can. Our whole life has been leading to this moment!

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April 17, 2018

My son Darby just left after five days of being here, five days of grieving, five days of relief. For the first time I am able to grieve with someone who knows Michael in the very odd particularity and intimacy of family life, someone who has loved him almost as long as I have.

As Darby leaves, I am suddenly so deeply exhausted that I can barely stand or walk. I do what needs to be done but I’m in a fog. As Darby says, “the dim fog of grief.” I eat, I walk, I do yoga, I hold the dog, I try to sleep, and mostly I visit Michael in the wretched hospital. But all of it is done within a grey cloud of awareness. Only grief and love burst through the cloud and bring heaving sobs of sorrow and joy and pain. For Michael is dying.

He may not die now, or even soon, but he is certainly dying. And now he knows this every bit as much as I have known it these many months.

As soon as Darby walks into Michael’s hospital room for the first time, he starts to cry. It is hard to see him like this but that’s how it is for someone who hasn’t seen him in awhile. Michael says, “I’m fine!” And simultaneously, Darby and I both say, “No, you’re not!” Oh how denial just slips back in so easily.

But it is stark and obvious. Michael’s body has been ravaged by this disease and he looks so ill. There’s no hiding from any of it now. He is dying.

At dinner that night with Darby, he starts talking about Michael. “He was such a good husband to you,” says Darby. “Yes, he was,” I say. Suddenly I notice, “We’re talking about him in the past tense!” It startles both of us but we also know the truth.

A week ago, Michael panicked. He was feeling particularly sick, particularly weak and exhausted, with seemingly endless diarrhea. He panics and truly realizes that he is dying. Then I panic too. When I get home, Darby calls, and I transfer my panic to him and he decides to visit. Then at Michael’s request, I call his son Adrian as well, and Adrian also decides to visit. In our panic, I find that we are calling in the troops.

That night as I meditate, a miracle occurs. I see heaven, or some muted version of heaven that appears inside of me, and suddenly I am filled with peace. I speak with Michael about our panic and about the miracle that occurred. And, miraculously, at the same time, he reports that he had a similar vision. We talk about the place that he is going to, about how beautiful it is, about how he has longed for it his whole life. Now, both of us are calm, allowing things to be as they are.

Yesterday Michael plays songs that he wants played at his Celebration of Life and Darby and Michael and I sit in his hospital room and cry together. One refrain comes through over and over, “I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.”

And it’s true. That’s what happens when the body begins its inevitable disintegration. There’s no earthly home for the soul anymore.

At times this is just horrible and exquisite torture. My feelings are so strong these days – so full of love for those who are helping us, so full of love for Michael who is clearly dying, and so full of love for what life is teaching me.

I see my husband’s body struggling for life, I see how decimated it is, how weak and painful and exhausted it is. He is so weak now. He can make it to the bathroom for more diarrhea but he has to hold onto something to do it. He gets back to bed and he is breathless, and his heart is beating hard and fast. He can only talk a little bit before he’s too tired to keep going. Sometimes when I see how his body is falling apart I find myself struggling to maintain my sense of compassion. A dying body can be an ugly and terrifying thing. I can see that he could rally through this particular crisis but he truly looks the worst I’ve ever seen him.

Then, almost simultaneously, I feel infinite compassion and tenderness for this dear old body that has changed so much, this body that is disintegrating. And for the life that is disintegrating within it.

And under everything, there is such a deep sense of sorrow and love. I have never cried so much or so deeply in my life and I am in agony. I’m also exhausted and I can feel myself burning out. I meditate, do yoga, see a good friend, and I rally again. But then I wonder how Michael can rally in the dim fog of his hospital room.

Having Darby here has made everything more real. The family is gathering to say goodbye. I feel the very real love that is coming toward me, toward Michael, toward us. And still, it’s not enough. This sorrow feels endless.

But again, once I cry, I can go more deeply into myself and finally, I feel a sense of the underlying rightness of it all. Now the dim fog clears at last. But it takes gut-level sobbing for me to get to this level of understanding. In order to truly know the hidden wisdom, the real tears must be cried.

At these times I realize that Michael’s disintegration is exactly what is needed for his metamorphosis to take place. For that’s what death is all about. It’s the last transformation. I can feel the patterns that are shifting and transforming, and I know that it is right to have this intensity of feeling now, that this level of transformation demands tears and dying and death in order for it to happen — for him and for me. This is it! This is where the meaning of a life, and of our life together, can be seen and felt and honored. And this is where it is all ending.

Then I actually know, at least for a time, that Michael’s death has an absolute goodness around it. He’s done what he set out to do, and to be, in this life. And we’ve done what we set out to do, and to be, as a couple. Those roles are crumbling away. And though I will miss him forever, I can feel that we’re almost done.

There is no escape from this. And really, there shouldn’t be! We should have to stare death in the face, we should know its horrifying look, its ominous smell, its moaning sound as well as we can. Our whole life has been leading to this moment! Whether it’s the death of a much-loved one, or one’s own death. We need to look!

These are the defining moments of a life and it’s tremendously sad, but only death can bring us to this level of clarity, this depth of wisdom, this agony of love. It’s the last and biggest transformation possible.

The wheel is turning. It is a huge wheel, and it is always turning. We blink in and out of this life never really knowing what we’ve come for or what we’ve accomplished. And only at the end can we be blessed with seeing it and maybe, if we’re lucky, we arrive at last to an understanding of the grace that has guided us all along.

Hope

Michael’s current stem cell transplant has made him terribly ill. It’s a precarious time that is filled with the mind-numbing boredom of longterm hospitalization punctuated by moments of horror. And no matter what I hope, it doesn’t change a thing!

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April 3, 2018

“You’ve got to keep your hope alive!” These are the words from a woman I know who has asked about Michael’s transplant. I had just told her that my hope around these medical treatments just isn’t there anymore. She, too, has struggled with a sick loved one and in their case, her hope has paid off.

As I walked away from her I realized that my first reaction was guilt for not being “hopeful” enough, that I’m being a bad spouse by not jumping on the Hope Train once again. But I’ve ridden that train, and I rode it hard during the first transplant, during the first chemo, during the subsequent chemo, and on and on. It’s taken me nowhere but into hopelessness. All of which makes me begin to question the underlying assumption that hope is good, is helpful, or is even necessary.

One thing I’m realizing is that hope is always about the future! We hope for some kind of better outcome and all hope is constructed on wishes for positive change in the nebulous time that is not now. Let me repeat that, it’s not Now! And finally, I’ve learned that the only time that really exists is this present moment. This one. The one that you’re using to read these words.

For the truth is, nothing is real other than this moment. Everything else is memory about the past or fantasy about the future. Most of the time we don’t stop to question the assumption about the goodness of hope, the necessity to feel that the future will be better. But what I’ve noticed is that hope knocks me out of the present moment and into a place of wishing, and if that wishing doesn’t come true, then what? Have I not hoped well enough? Or is Michael’s own hope somehow tainted? What happens when hoping just doesn’t work?

We believe we are seeding the future with our current thoughts. And certainly, it is important to have positive expectancy for the future. Things could get pretty dire if we fail to believe that our current sacrifices aren’t creating a better future down the road. But it is also important, and really more important, to have positive expectancy for the moment in which we find ourselves. For if we do not love this moment, this very moment, we are doomed.

Michael’s current stem cell transplant has made him terribly ill. His white count has plummeted and now he has no white blood cells to protect him from infection. I watch his heart monitor as he receives a platelet transfusion — sometimes its beats are even, sometimes they jump all over the place. It’s a precarious time that is filled with the mind-numbing boredom of longterm hospitalization punctuated by moments of horror. And no matter what I hope, it doesn’t change a thing!

So is my lack of hope a problem? For the opposite of hope is certainly a kind of despair, and god knows that none of us want to sink into despair. But perhaps this is a false dichotomy. Perhaps there are unnamed options outside of hope and despair. Perhaps there is a middle ground that has nothing to do with hope.

At this point, I’m searching fiercely for that middle ground. It’s located somewhere in a sense of the immediate and the neutral, located in a radical sense of accepting everything just as it is. It is not negativity or nihilism or denial. Rather it is a firm stance toward the goodness of the moment, toward an understanding that this moment is holy, that this moment is where it’s all happening, that this moment is the only thing we’ve got! And in this moment, the meaning is made.

The last line of Emily’s poem is the most mysterious for me: “and never in extremity it asked a crumb of me.” This doesn’t feel like the hope that I’ve nurtured in myself during these long months of Michael’s illness. For my hope has asked me for many crumbs. It has asked me to tend to this thing with feathers in the face of devastating disappointment. It has asked me to  believe in a treatment that hasn’t worked, that hasn’t flown. Or maybe I just haven’t understood hope deeply enough, maybe I’ve clung to it too hard. But for me, I feel that Emily is speaking of Faith, not Hope.

I find that my faith is now anchored in believing that everything that is happening is for the Highest Good. This is a very hard faith to practice in the face of the death and destruction all of us can see around us now. It is a very hard faith to practice as one test after another comes back showing no progress in Michael’s illness. It is a very hard faith to practice as I watch my husband trying to take in some broth as his white blood count hovers at zero, and horrible diarrhea becomes the result. But it is the only faith I can muster — the faith that whether we can understand it or not, there is a force in the Universe that is always moving toward the highest evolutionary principle, toward the Highest Good.

In this Universal scheme we are less than a blink of God’s eye. Our individual lives are an experiment in evolution and ultimately, a test of our ability to love. The circumstances of this testing are more complex and manifold than any of us can ever grasp, but always we are held in love. This becomes my Faith in the underlying goodness of our lives, and in our deaths. And this faith is unshakable.

At this point, I’ve given up on hope and it feels like I’m taking a breath of sanity in an insane situation. I don’t believe in it anymore. I’ve clung to it and now I know that this is a mistake. Hope still flies through my mind many times a day, but I have learned to watch her feathery flutterings and come back to faith instead. It feels more solid and more real.

I still find myself hoping that Michael can continue to take in liquids, that he can continue to find his way through this maze of drugs and nausea and extreme exhaustion. But I also know that my hoping doesn’t change anything here, that in fact it can lead to hopelessness and loss of heart.

Instead I watch him eat the little bit that he can eat. I listen when he complains about his stomach and his gut. I respond to his moans. I touch him softly on the arm to let him know I’m here. And over and over, I let go of the future, let go of hope, and dwell in the love and faith that lies between us now in this desperate and sacred place.

 

Transplant

I know that he’s just gone deeply inside himself to find the strength needed to get through this. I also know he will become more and more silent as he gets sicker and sicker over the next long days.

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March 26, 2018

Michael’s second transplant has started. There are six bags of stem cells today, and six again tomorrow. But today I am realizing how dangerous this really is. He’s been pre-medicated with Benadryl because of the strong allergic reactions that bodies have to the medium in which the stem cells are preserved.

“Now, you know you need to tell me if you have any heart pain or chest tightness,” the nurse says again. Michael nods but now both the nurse and I are on high alert, watching carefully. Meanwhile Michael has moved into closed-eyed silence and only monosyllabic responses. I should be used to this by now, but I’m not. When he is sick I always feel like I’m being shut out. But I know that he’s just gone deeply inside himself to find the strength needed to get through this. I also know he will become more and more silent as he gets sicker and sicker over the next long days.

Then yesterday we were told that there is flu on this ward. Apparently, there have been deaths from the flu in this hospital but we don’t know if those happened on this ward or not. Regardless, I’m even more cautious now though there’s not much to do but wash my hands a dozen times a day. Mostly, I sit and watch, and today I bring my laptop.

It’s boring really. Tremendously boring and also horrifying. Two days ago he was given a poison that will almost kill him in the next two weeks, and now he’s being given the stem cells that might prolong his life. But even the stem cells have risks and the progress of their input is watched closely, the nurse standing by for the next two hours, carefully monitoring every sign of life.

Michael’s throat has started itching and though that doesn’t sound like much, the nurse immediately backs off on the rate of the stem cell drip. It’s a sign of an allergic response and they’re not taking any chances.

This is good! During the last transplant 19 months ago, I am at my youngest son’s wedding. It is a tremendously hard decision to make but the nurses assure me that Michael is in good hands and I choose to see my son marry his beautiful wife. I just can’t miss this milestone event and Michael strongly encourages me to go. He knows exactly how important it is to me to be there.

In the middle of the rehearsal dinner I get a text from Michael saying that they just placed him on oxygen. I am terrified.

I go outside and stand on a cliff above the California ocean and cry unrestrainedly. “I should be there, I should be there,” is the refrain in my mind. But I’m not. I’m 2000 miles away and I don’t know what’s going on. I get another text that he’s gotten so much fluid with the transplant that it’s become hard for him to breathe. I go back into the dinner and my other son’s wife explains it to me. She’s a nurse and she can see how upset I am. “It’s not a big deal,” she says, “people go on oxygen all the time. The fluid pressed against his lungs and made it hard for him to breathe. They’re doing the right thing. He’ll be ok.”

I am much calmer but I’m also anxious to be back home, to see my husband with my own eyes, to know he is truly ok. I’m only gone for 3 days but it feels like a lifetime. What a comedy of timing! My son’s wedding, my husband’s transplant. Could it get much more dramatic? And then I realize that of course it could. Michael could die from this.

Now as the stem cells continue to drip into his arm, I tell the nurse about his previous transplant reaction, about the use of fluid that compromised his oxygen intake. The nurse pays careful attention to what I’m saying, checks his oxygen saturation, and it seems this will not happen again.

After a few hours, it’s done. There haven’t been any really bad reactions and now Michael is sleeping. The stem cells are in and making their way to the bone marrow, to the possibility of building new life within his sick one.

But I also know what’s coming. In about a week, Michael will literally be standing at death’s door once again. His white blood cell count will go to zero. And then, if things go well, the stem cells become engrafted and take over for the stem cells that are no longer healthy. Once this happens he gradually comes back from his visit to the underworld, hopefully coming back stronger than the last time.

Transplant day is counted as day zero here on the ward. It is celebrated as a birthday and helium balloons are given out in an effort to cheer up a procedure that is anything but cheery. Really, it’s not a birth day, but it is the possibility for a rebirth. And no matter which way it goes, it’s the end of the line for us. It marks a rebirth into a new life, or into the next life. And either way, both of us are looking forward to going home.

Pre-Planning

What I’m really being struck by is the whole idea of being able to “pre-plan” for death. When it actually happens, I have no idea how I’ll respond.

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3/11/2018

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.

Living with Dying

Now that we have grieved, and only because we have grieved, this day can move forward within feelings of gentleness and peace.

 

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2/22/2018 at Cape San Blas

Received from a friend:

I recall as though it were yesterday seeing Michael on a number of occasions answering a cell phone call from you. It was so touching to see the expression on his face — gentle, loving, happiness.  I recall feeling as though I was witnessing something precious [something that few married couples achieve].  

I will also confide in you something I witnessed sitting in the waiting area one day at Eastwind. You had a very dear moment standing in the hallway in front of an open office door. No one else was present.

There was this sweet moment in which you both kissed gently and hugged briefly with the sun streaming in that window behind you. I have not told anyone because I felt I had accidentally invaded and witnessed a private moment.  That image has never left me and makes me happy to have seen such deep love.

I am living and Michael is dying. It’s the simple and profound truth that we face every day. Of course I’m dying too, but that kind of thought goes nowhere and doesn’t really touch the living reality of our time together.

I can see the dying in his bruised face, his swollen legs, his atrophied muscles, his increasing lethargy. Since we are at the ocean for awhile, we are together all day, so there’s literally no escape from these truths. This means that every day we must face grief yet again. Another fresh dose of sorrow awaits us each morning with its pale insistent face, and whether it is acknowledged then or not, it is sitting there waiting to be seen – the sad, persistent, and inevitable guest in our relationship.

When I awaken there is always a brief time in which the pain isn’t there yet, it hasn’t been realized yet, and I’m simply myself, waking up. It’s such a relief, this brief time of waking, but it is short and soon reality sinks in again.

What I realize is that it’s absolutely necessary to acknowledge this suffering every single day. How I wish I didn’t have to! But I’ve noticed that if I try to ignore it, it doesn’t go away. Rather, it turns into some sort of ugliness or falseness, something unreal.

This means we are truly living with dying. And because of this, I’m seeing that Michael and I are on completely different trajectories – his gradually declining into greater and greater helplessness while mine is working mightily toward greater living. It is hard for me to maintain this within an atmosphere of death and I have to concentrate to keep myself from falling into an exhausted depression, or worse, an angry resentment. It is a daily practice, sometimes a moment to moment practice, of striving toward life and love and liberation. Meanwhile he moves inexorably toward the dual-faced liberation and resignation of dying.

I find myself wishing for his death more often these days. Not out of anger, though anger still sneaks in from time to time, but now the wish is riding in on waves of exhaustion. I’m truly sick of this situation. Sick and tired. But I also know that this time is sacred and that it is teaching me more about love than I ever knew was possible. I keep wondering how much more there is to learn, and then I know that the learning is infinite.

I don’t want to get sick in order to express these feelings. But they are very strong and they need to find words to fulfill them lest they turn into anger or disgust or some kind of distancing diversion. Then I realize that this, too, is love, that this striving toward expression forces me to stay honest, to speak what needs to be spoken, especially when it is hard to speak.

Love is so different from what we think it is, so different from what we’ve read or seen or been told. It’s the daily emergence of all that arises in you and your loved one, and then finding the most compassionate and most truthful way to respond. It’s the encounter with the Beloved, with the deep raw heart of God.

Today I find that Michael is crying and when I speak to him, I am crying too. He says, “I know you will feel relief when I die, and I don’t blame you.” It’s the first time he’s said this and it is such a hard truth but I acknowledge it.

“Yes,” I say, “there will be relief. And there will also be horrible, desperate loss.”

“But you will be free!” he says.

“And so will you,” I say. Now we both hear the truths we are speaking and we cry together. It is the kind of crying that brings real comfort for we have touched each others’ hearts. Now that we have grieved, and only because we have grieved, this day can move forward within feelings of gentleness and peace.

Since neither of us is denying Michael’s death, things are easier in some ways, and more stark. I’m feeling other dimensions of this experience, and the confrontation with the huge abyss of loss allows fear to arise. For a moment, I fear his death, I fear being alone, and more than that, I fear being without him in my life. I’m not sure who I’ll be on my own. I’m not sure that I will be strong, or that I will move through the world and its deep suffering with any kind of grace or calm.

Now I go to the sea for renewal. I find my emotional self stumbling when I’m alone. I stumble and wobble and cry and I wonder how I will face another month or two months or twelve months of this living death. But as I walk, I know I will. And what then? What when he is truly gone?

Far away, I see his familiar figure approaching me on the beach. I’ve been out for an hour and now he makes his slow progress in my direction. But it’s still his very particular silhouette even though it is bent and slow, it is still Michael coming toward me on the beach. How many times have I seen this? How many times has my heart gladdened to see him coming closer until we finally meet? We kiss, more a peck than a kiss, but still, it’s contact. I know there will be a time when this man will no longer come toward me on the beach, and when I say this to him, I find that he is crying along with me, and my heart breaks open once again.

Our friend was so right. She saw these sweet moments, this huge blessing of a life lived with deep love. We meet and once again we are washed clean by an ocean of tears and grief — freed in this wild, beautiful, endless water.