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.

 

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.

 

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.

Coming to Terms

He has realized he is dying and he is telling people this. I am so relieved for there’s a whole layer of resistance and denial that no longer needs to exist, a whole layer of energy that no longer needs to be expended in the name of hope.

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Feb 11, 2018

In the past three days our trip to the ocean has worked its magic on us once again. Michael calls this place a “pattern accelerator,” and it’s true, for he has realized he is dying and he is telling people this. So now we have moved into another round of grief and acceptance and yet again, more grief.  I am so relieved for there’s a whole layer of resistance and denial that no longer needs to exist, a whole layer of energy that no longer needs to be expended in the name of hope.

For many months, I’ve known this was coming. At some level I knew it at the beginning. Michael says that I’ve felt this because of my father’s death when I was 13. Early on he believed that my unwillingness to jump wholeheartedly onto the Hope Train was an effect of this childhood trauma. And though there’s some truth in this, truth that there is childhood pain that is so deep it’s almost impossible to heal, there’s always been the sense for me that this disease he’s gotten is the harbinger of the end of his life.

So for such a long time, I have danced around his denial and his hope. I wanted to support the hope but without supporting a kind of wishing that didn’t feel real to me. Each month we’ve gone into the next round of blood tests, each month watching and waiting for the numbers that would tell us whether things were getting better. And each month I’d feel us clinging just a bit, wanting the numbers to be something that they aren’t, then watching as that same energy got redirected into the next month’s numbers.

Now we’re not expecting the numbers to become normal. Now we’re expecting that Michael is moving toward some kind of death at some unknown time. But knowing this is coming, and really knowing this is coming, are two different things, two different layers of acceptance and meaning.

For several years my left eye has been dryer than the right and it tears more often and more easily. In the past year this has gotten noticeably worse. As a mind-body psychologist, I pay attention to these bodily metaphors, my own and others’. I know these metaphors are always telling us something about ourselves, and usually something important, something that we haven’t totally grasped or haven’t totally healed.

In metaphorical language, the left side of the body represents the Feminine, the right side the Masculine. It’s a pretty easy metaphor really. My feminine self is crying while my masculine self is seeing clearly and I realize that both are important and both are true — for there is real grief and there is clear seeing.

Today I went to a place on the beach that we call The Point. It’s a good long hike and Michael drops me off near an entry point and will pick me up later so that he can have the car. He is too tired for this walk and he is sad not to be able to take it with me. I pack a bunch of tissues assuming I will be crying on this beautiful and solitary stretch of sand. It’s the first time I’ve gone here alone.

Before it was always Michael and me – walking, holding hands, watching the waves and the thousands of different birds that make this part of the world their home – the pelicans, seagulls, plovers, terns, herons, and skimmers. It’s a special place for us and it’s bittersweet to be doing it alone. But it’s still transcendently beautiful and the sacredness of the place overtakes me. I meditate and do yoga and pray and sing songs of worship to the ocean. For a time, I am healed and surprisingly, I don’t cry.

As I walk the long path back to the road where I hope that Michael will meet me I realize that I’m going to be doing a lot of things alone — things that I used to do with him. My left eye tears up over this but my right eye remains clear. “Oh well,” I think, “It’s just the way it is. Accept it, accept it.” I know I am sad but I also know I am deeply blessed to be walking on this beach, to be praying in this sacred water, to be loving this holy place.

But I’ve walked a long way and now I’m tired. I’ve been out for almost 3 hours and my legs are hurting, the wind is picking up, and there’s rain blowing in. Finally, I make it to a long boardwalk leading to a place we’ve stayed before. It’s closer than the boardwalk to our current house which is another mile down the road and I’m ready to come in. I text him to tell him where I am, but since the phone service is terrible here, I can’t trust that our texts will reach each other. I’m not sure if he’ll be able to find me.

My feet are crusted with sand and they hurt from walking on seashells and the hard, cheap and splinter-laden wood of this boardwalk. I sit down to stretch my socks on over my filthy toes, engrossed in my struggle with gritty sand, tight socks and old shoes. Across the way, on a parallel walk, a man calls out, “Is that you?”

I look up and it is Michael! “You found me!” I say joyously. And as my heart leaps with joy, just as suddenly I am besieged by sorrow. I realize that someday Michael won’t be here to find me, and I wonder if anyone will ever look for me in this way again. Now deep wracking sobs move through me with a grief that is almost unbearable. But all of me is crying now, and that is a good thing. There’s no distance from this grief, no escape from this pain, for he will be gone and I will be here without him. And now at last, I can fully face into this.

The good thing, the truly remarkable thing, is that for the first time we can talk about it. We can grieve wholeheartedly. There’s no more hiding from the truth, no temporizing, no denial. We don’t know how much time we’ve got left, but we know it’s limited.

I didn’t know I’d have to face yet another level of acceptance. I should have known, but I didn’t. I’m realizing that each new layer of acceptance must also mean a new layer of grief. For when we accept something we don’t want to accept, aren’t we really just learning to live with some sort of loss? Even though I’ve known this death was coming for some time, now that I really know it, I find myself stumbling around it, shakily trying to find my feet, trying to hold steady. I am learning over and over again to accept the unacceptable.

I remember reading a sentence about grief in one of the many medical rooms we’ve sat in throughout this 19 months of illness. It had one of those rainbow and sunshine backgrounds with the words: “Grief is just love that hasn’t let go yet.” But then I wonder how we ever truly let go of a much-loved person.

All I know for sure is that I can’t let go yet. This man is still very much alive, and though his body is dying, his soul is growing, and I am here to witness that growth. Now I embrace this new reality. Both my eyes are open and both are crying, my whole heart is bursting, and I am alive with grief and clarity.

Life Purpose

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November 21, 2017

The new numbers just came back. The numbers that indicate if Michael’s new drug, the “last” drug, is working. And at least so far, it isn’t. The numbers remain stubbornly outside of the normal range and are almost exactly what they were on the previous drug which also wasn’t working.

Of course the word from the medical community is to give it time. The hope is that there is a cumulative effect and Michael has been told to stay on this new drug for a year. Regardless, both of our minds can’t help buzzing with this news, can’t help projecting ahead into the unknown, can’t help wondering what our next step is if there’s no improvement in the several months ahead.

“Maybe I’ve completed my purpose,” Michael says this to me as we sit on the couch facing each other to talk about the future once again. “I mean, maybe my soul purpose is done.”

“Maybe,” I say, “but I don’t know.”

He says this without self-pity. It’s just a statement of fact. The things he used to do, and the things he is doing now, are drying up. They’re not quite flowing. Naturally we both take this as a sign. For one reason or another, the flow of reality is not lining up with Michael’s efforts. This is unusual for him and it catches our attention.

He says, “It seems to me it’s a message. Things aren’t working for me.”

I can tell he really is seeing this clearly. It’s not about feeling sorry for himself. He’s simply noticing the flow of events, noticing where the flow is blocked and he’s not taking it personally.

“So what do you think that means?” I ask.

“It may mean my soul purpose is completed. It may mean I’m supposed to die.”

So now the entire question of one’s soul purpose presents itself at a deeper level and it opens up a huge area of inquiry. How do we even know what our life purpose is? And if it is completed, which in itself seems almost impossible to know, does that mean it is time to die? Can it ever truly be finished? Aren’t some of the greater purposes infinite in nature? Aren’t they always somewhat of a mystery?

Michael had a clear soul purpose before this illness: he was a healer and a teacher and he has done these things. But those purposes have been taken away and it’s likely they won’t return. And everyone who retires is more or less facing this same question – what is my purpose if I’m not doing what I’ve always done? How do I share myself in a way that supports my sense of purpose, in a way that furthers the greater good? And those who are ill may face an especially difficult question: What is my purpose if I’m no longer even able to do what I would like to do?

Add to this the interesting fact that Michael’s spiritual awakening occurred just a few months prior to his diagnosis, and the question becomes even more complicated. Was his life purpose simply to wake up? And then what? Die?

I believe our life purpose is something that can be discovered but it’s far more mysterious than our careers, or our partners, or our hobbies. Some people are born knowing what their purpose is in life. But most of us aren’t that fortunate and we have to stumble around while trying to figure it out, and sometimes we never do.

In my stumbling I’m learning that we don’t move through life, life moves through us. And in that movement we encounter exactly what life wants from us whether we know it or not. Life has its own agenda! And we may, or may not, ever know what it is. In fact, it’s possible that we don’t have to accomplish any particular thing in order for our purpose to be lived. It’s not about what we do, it’s about who we are.

So who is Michael now? He is a man who is facing death with as much dignity and acceptance as he can gather. He takes in the latest medical numbers with relative calm and with a sense of surrender to the greater Mystery.

Who am I? I am the woman watching the man facing death and trying to deal with the many impossible feelings that arise as I do so, trying to face all of it with humility, love, and raw truth. Elucidating this process seems to be my purpose right now.

One thing I’ve discovered for sure is that it doesn’t matter how many mental gyrations I go through – it still hurts. Each new layer of illness is another loss, another adjustment, another tragedy, and it does no good to deny this. There is a huge amount of suffering in watching this drama unfold and there is no way around it. And, ultimately, thank god for it!

Through these events I am being given the immense gift of time. For time is letting me work through this process and is allowing me to feel more than I’ve felt in years. Time is giving my mind the space to thrive on thoughts and words that I never knew were in me. Time is allowing tremendous spiritual richness in the encounter with death and dying. And finally, even though I am deeply sad, in some profound way, time is making me grateful for sorrow.

For all of it is true! All the feelings, all the thoughts, all the ambivalence, and all the events. The revelation, over and over, is that this is the truth of life and death. This is the way it is. And even this level of suffering and loss is worth it. I’m learning that as harsh as it is, the experience of life and death is worth the suffering, for within it we have the opportunity to find our best and highest selves.

If life purpose is actually about who we are rather than what we do, it seems to me that all we can really do is take the next step, the one that is right in front of us, and take it with as much integrity, and presence, and grace as we can muster. Each step leads to another, and with each step we learn to trust the process of simply Being more and more deeply. And even though sometimes a step plunges us into chaos, chaos can become our greatest teacher.

We can learn to do this dance of life with all of its missteps, gracelessness, and errors. We can learn to trust that if we fully do the dance, with every part of our being, in the end we will be led to know why we’ve come here. For ultimately, this feels like it is life’s purpose — to live  as fully and deeply as we dare.

Dance of Life and Death

Shiva

April 3, 2017

Today a woman almost died in the clinic. She was in the lab getting her blood drawn prior to receiving her chemotherapy. Apparently her blood pressure bottomed out and suddenly we hear a loud voice shouting, “We need a crash cart. Now!” All kinds of medical personnel arrive quickly and the air takes on a hurried urgency that is not usual for these generally boring days. A nurse comes out and tells us there’s been an emergency and no one will be taken into the lab for awhile.

Michael and I immediately go into meditation, sending light and love to this unknown person and her helpers. Both of us feel the patient’s soul struggling to decide whether to stay here or leave. I am aware of angels and Michael feels she’s decided to stay on earth but isn’t really happy about it – there is still some work for her to do.

In the meantime, another nurse comes out and begins talking with the only African American woman sitting alone in the waiting room, waiting like the rest of us. I realize that it is her mother or sister or friend who is in trouble. The nurse says they will be taking the patient to the ER, and then goes back into the lab to help.

I watch the room and for the most part people simply keep doing whatever it was they were doing, sort of a “business as usual” stance, though this is hardly usual. No one looks at the woman sitting with us whose life has just been upended. I’m not sure if it’s because she is Black or more likely, because they simply don’t know what to do. I cross the room to sit with her and ask if there’s anything I can do to help. She looks at me with tears in her eyes and says they will be going to the ER soon. I say, “We’re praying for you.” She takes my hand and we sit for a moment in the stillness of calamity.

Eventually, the patient is taken on a gurney to the ER. I see she has oxygen and IV’s but she is clearly unconscious, and the little drama moves on to another venue, as her friend or sister or daughter follows her down the hall.

But I am more shaken by this than I realize. As we walk up the stairs to the chemo suite I am suddenly weak and sickened, and a migraine begins its dreadful journey up the back of my neck and into my head.

This could be me, I realize, this could be Michael on that gurney. This clinic isn’t just some place we visit every week. It’s a life-threatening, life-saving place – a place of Western medical healing, and as primitive as it is, it’s what we’ve got. It’s the slim thread of hope.

We’d been beginning to talk about treatment as The Long Slog. We’ve been at this for 5 months now and we have at least 7 months left to go. This feels like a very long time some days and of course there’s no guarantee that everything will be better after all of this treatment is finished. We keep saying we’re “buying time” as if time is something that can be bought, when really we know that it’s all up to some Mystery that is far beyond our ability to control or comprehend.

Regardless, it’s all become bizarrely routine – the weekly trips to chemotherapy, the “up” time on Tuesdays after Monday’s dose of steroids; the lack of sleep; the creeping bruising, redness and tearing around Michael’s eyes; the growing fatigue; the ongoing problems with swelling of his tongue and mouth, and the list goes on. And regardless of how bad this may all sound, we’re actually weathering it with a fair amount of acceptance and calm.

Last week someone asked me how I’m doing and I found myself saying, “I’m walking through hell but I’m doing it pretty well.” And then, of course, it all broke down today and the reality of our situation came flooding through me and I was able to feel the true sadness and strain of what we are enduring.

So today was not routine. The woman going to the ER reminds us that this is anything but routine. People get really sick from these treatments and people die from these treatments. And it’s a hard road for all of us – for those who get better and for those who don’t.

But what I am realizing more and more often is that this isn’t something special or unusual or even out of the ordinary. People get sick all the time and people die from their illnesses or from some awful accident or they just keel over suddenly and without warning. This truly is the Human Condition – a phrase that continues to garner levels of meaning for me as we move through this illness together — patient and caregiver.

But as common as it may be, it isn’t routine, nor should we let it become routine. It is the dance of life and death that all of us have come here to learn. Today I realize that someday I may be the woman following the gurney down the hall. And I pray that when that day comes, I have the strength to walk with Spirit, knowing that I am exactly where I am supposed to be.