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.

The Talk

Heart sidewalk

January 17, 2017

This morning we had The Talk. We’ve had it once before right after Michael was diagnosed, but today we went further. It’s the talk that’s hard to have. It’s the talk about death and dying.

When we had the talk in six months ago we were lying in bed with Michael’s head on my shoulder while my tears covered the top of his bald spot. “What do you want done with your body?” I ask. “It’s immaterial,” he said, and we both chuckle at the pun. But he means it. It really isn’t important to him at all. “Burial? Cremation? Ashes scattered?” Really not important. “Memorial service?” Only if it helps the living, helps me, only if I want one.

Every answer is for me to do what is best for me because it really isn’t important to him. He knows he’ll be gone and he’s not afraid. He worries about me though, about what I’ll do. And all I can say is that I really don’t know, don’t know, don’t know.

In our hubris and our naiveté, we’d believed that we knew how our deaths would go down for us. We had a life reading with a Tibetan lama many years back and we were told that Michael would live to be 93, and I would live to be 87. We were at peace with this scenario. It seemed right and we could live with it. In fact, we believed it.

The idea has always been that Michael would be fine without me. He is a hermit at heart. He loves to read and study and learn and he can do it for hours on end and never be bored or lonely. He’s great at entertaining himself and for the most part, I’ve been the only person he’s needed to have around. He loves others, of course –his family, his son and his son’s family, my sons and their wives, a few close friends – but he’s never needed others around the way I have. He’d miss me, of course, but he’d read and write and teach and he’d be fine.

For years we could see this old couple we were becoming, loving each other for 50 years or so, my easy death, and eventually he would follow me with his own easy death six years later. Ha! It’s a great picture, isn’t it? This conceit, this fantasy, this idea that we have any control whatsoever over our fates.

Then today Michael says he is realizing again that he may actually die of this illness he has. Of course we’ve known this, but to truly know it and live it, is completely different. Like grief, these realizations seem to come in waves, and for whatever reason, another wave is washing us toward greater clarity now.

For the past several weeks I’d been re-reading these words I’ve written and just recently I found that at the end of Michael’s hospitalization the doctor had said that the light chain proteins in his blood would go down to zero in 4-6 weeks. It brought me up short. It’s now been more than 10 weeks and the light chain proteins are still around 300. They’ve been decreasing, which is good, but they’re not gone, and it is a potent reminder that this disease may not respond the way we thought it would, the way it was “supposed” to.

At this moment, when Michael realizes once again that he might actually die from this disease, I realize that I’ve been holding my breath for such a long time. I haven’t been speaking the words that I’ve been needing to speak. So finally I tell Michael I’ve been thinking the same thing, thinking that he could die, and he makes a joke of it (“Well, but that’s you.”). And we both laugh but tears are now streaming down my face.

We decide that we’re ready to ask our doctor for the real deal, the come-to-Jesus talk, the is-it-time-to-put-my-life-in-order talk. And in the process we discover that we’re ready to talk it over with each other again too.

So we start with my death. Michael says that if I die first, “which seems highly unlikely,” said as another joke, he would move to be near his son and his family. He’d be an old codger walking around and studying spiritual correspondence courses and spending endless hours online doing research and wise-cracking on Facebook. Of course he would “miss me forever.”

He expects that if he dies first, I would move to California to be near my sons. I don’t know what I’d do but for the first time I say, “What’s really happening is that I am getting ready to be a widow.” I’d been thinking this for weeks and finally I say it out loud to him. It feels hard and true.

Maybe I’d move eventually, maybe I wouldn’t, but then I said another thing that I didn’t know I would say. I tell Michael I would look for another partner. And he expects this, he knows this, he even wants this for me! No hurt feelings, no resentment, no recriminations – just the truth.

He knows I’m good at being a partner. I’m good at loving another human being closely and intimately. As a would-be astrologer he’s studied my chart, “You have so many planets in the 7th house, the house of partnerships and relationships. It’s one of the things that keeps you growing,” and he wants me to keep growing.

I know all of this about myself, of course, but to speak of it with such rawness was life-giving. Michael wants me to be happy, whether he is here or not, and again there are tears in my eyes as I write this.

We hug long and hard and I say, “But I’d rather it was with you,” and we hug even longer and hold each other as we both cry. And now the air is clear around us. There is peace and gentle kindness. I look at Michael and realize how precious he is, how amazing his deep soul is, and how grateful I am that we have been together in this life.

So today we turn to face the future with our great soft hearts wide open, knowing that whatever comes, is what should come — trusting that Spirit always brings exactly what is needed at exactly the right time. We have faith that what life gives us will be accepted with grace and courage. We mean to bless it all with gratitude and tears. And dear god, I believe we will.