Riding the Waves

The thing is, the very singular thing is, that this kind of loneliness can only be filled by Michael, and he’s not ever going to be here to fill it again. There is literally an unfillable hole in my life, and that is the truth of grief.

 

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June 16, 2018

It’s 52 days since Michael’s death and I’ve been alone the whole day. I haven’t spoken to a single person, not one, except of course, Michael. But he doesn’t answer. For the first time since he died, and for a whole day, I haven’t cried. Though of course I’m crying now as I think about him. I’m so lonely and I miss him so much.

I talk to the dog. She doesn’t answer either, but she does wag her tail and lick my hands, so that’s something. The thing is, the very singular thing is, that this kind of loneliness can only be filled by Michael, and he’s not ever going to be here to fill it again. There is literally an unfillable hole in my life, and that is the truth of grief.

Sometimes I wish I had the mind of my dog. She is utterly present-centered. When Michael was alive and lying in a hospital bed in our living room, she loved him. She licked him and cuddled him and wanted to be near him. After he died I held her up to his body and she had no interest at all. None. He was simply gone and she knew it. And, weirdly, if he walked in the door right now, and how I wish he could, she’d be delirious with joy. There’s no gap for her. There’s no missing. He’s just not here.

A new friend reminded me of something Ram Dass said about the loss of a loved one. He said that not only is one dealing with the loss of that person, one is also dealing with the loss of the part of one’s self that was known by that person. And now that is gone. This makes me cry even harder. For no one else will ever know me in the very particular, subtle, and conscious way that Michael did. That level of being known, that rich particularity, is lost forever in this life.

In spite of my best efforts, the house is filled with Michael, even as I clear out so many of his things, his books, his clothes — he is everywhere! There’s the art we bought in Green Bay, and the fossil we found at the gorge. There’s the large vertebrae of some huge mammal we stumbled on in the mountains, and the garden ornament I bought for him because of a dream he had. The list goes on and on. Every room of this house, every thought in my head, has a tendril that leads back to Michael. There are times when it is extremely painful and times when it is comforting, but always, it is a little too empty now, and much too sad. And part of me just desperately wants to escape, wants to run away, wants to find another lover, another house, another life.

I find myself cruising the Zillow site looking at houses for sale, and I even find one I think would be right for me. I text my realtor, who also lost a true love, and she talks me down from the edge, thank god. I won’t be buying a new house today. But the impulse is still there and I have to wrestle with it. I plan a trip to California to meet my first grandchild in September and I realize I am pinning so many hopes on this new life that is being born, so many hopes for this hole in me to be filled, all the while knowing that it won’t. I look ahead to birthdays and anniversaries and holidays with something approaching dread, and I pray I’m in a better place inside of myself when they occur.

A friend eloquently writes: “I think about you being alone in a house still animated with scents and wispy trails of Michael’s presence, thicker in some places and thinner and more spread out in others, as if one moment you step into liminal spaces where the veil between worlds thins and the next you find yourself solidly in this physical world of ours.”

This is exactly right. I’m in the liminal space most of the time when I’m alone – between the worlds. I talk to Michael then, and there’s still enough memory of his voice that I can hear him say, “It’s ok, Babe. You’re doing fine.” I imagine it’s actually him speaking to me then, his spirit reaching out across the void to comfort me. And maybe it is.

I have a session with our psychic, the one who correctly predicted Michael’s death, to ask her about my life now that he is gone. She tells me that I’m still in shock from his death but this is lightening, and when it does, Michael will come through to me more easily. She also tells me that finding another love is not my primary mission. Rather, I am to “feel safe in earth” in order to experience profound relaxation while on my own. This level of relaxation is based in utter faith in the Divine as it unfolds. She says this is the key to deeper enlightenment.

She also says that the hardest part of enlightenment isn’t the leap into it, it is the integration of its many lessons and this takes time. I will know that I am making progress  when I am filled with fearlessness. She reminds me of other readings I’ve had in which I am told how important it is, how actually crucial it is, for me to find joy within myself and my own life. She sees another love coming for me but not for awhile, for it is my task to learn to live alone, to root deeply into my own center.

I know she is right. I’ve never really lived alone until now. I’ve lived with girlfriends and boyfriends, and husbands, and children. But I’ve never lived alone.

Many years ago an astrologer told me about my North node. The North node points to what your soul came into this life to learn, and mine is in the first house, the house of independence.  The numerology of my birth date has a similar message, for my life path adds up to the number “one.” This signifies that I am a leader and independence is my greatest strength.

But it doesn’t feel like this to me. I don’t feel like a leader. I feel done in, at sea, overwhelmed. So much of me wants to fall back into what is easy, to meld into another relationship, to give myself over to a new lover or a new house. Yet I can hear the truth in the psychic’s words. She gives me the same information I’ve heard from all of these other esoteric sources. I must find joy in my life without losing myself, without giving myself away to the life of another. Then, and only then, can true love come again. This finding of myself could not happen without Michael’s death, and now I realize this truth at another level. His death was an absolutely necessary part of our soul contract, a necessary sacrifice.

As I write these words, another tidal wave of grief comes rushing in. It tosses me into the deep water and as it does, I know this is sacred space. All of it. This grief is teaching me to learn to love my life without Michael. It is teaching me to swim in this vast ocean without drowning, and it is teaching me to find my way to shore once again. I know that the hardest thing is for me to sit exactly here on this shore, as steadily as I can. Sit exactly here and allow wave after wave to wash through me, leaving me clearer and calmer with each undulation of this endless sea.

Laying Out the Body

Warning: this blog contains graphic details and pictures of laying my husband’s body laid out prior to cremation.

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It is April 25th, 3:20am, and suddenly I am wide awake. I have been sound asleep for the first time in days, but something is waking me up out of my sleeping pill stupor. I still have the sound-deafening headphones on to block out the barking dog across the way. And yet,  I have heard Michael calling me and I am wide awake. I find myself almost running out to the living room where Michael’s hospital bed is located.

He’s struggling for breath and he cannot talk. I can see that he couldn’t have called me, but he did “call” me at another level, and I am here. There’s a deep rattling in his chest and it is terrifying. He’s gasping for air. I run to the other room to get the oxygen machine that we haven’t needed until now. Luckily it’s all hooked up and all I have to do is fit the tubing into his nose and turn it on.

But there’s no relief. The rattling and gasping and struggling for breath continues. I think he is dying but I can’t stop to think too hard. I begin to do emergency energy work to make it easier for his spirit to leave his body. I’m opening his crown chakra, his throat, and his heart. But I go back to the crown again because that is where my hands are pulled. His spirit needs to fly out of his crown.

Now I’m crying and my tears are falling on his bald head. “I love you so much, I love you so much,” I say over and over. I know this is it. I know he is going now. He gasps out, ” …love…you…,”  his eyes roll up to the top of his head and now only the whites are visible. There is one last shudder and his eyes slowly roll down again. He is gone.

I am completely stunned and I cry for a moment, but then I sit on the couch. A sudden stillness comes over me and I am drawn into deep meditation. Eventually I call Hospice and they send a nurse over to declare that Michael is dead.

Michael wanted his body to be left undisturbed for 24 hours after death and of course I honor his wishes. I touch his forehead and already it’s getting colder. It doesn’t feel like living flesh.

I sit quietly until my brother and his wife awaken to go home to Colorado. They offer to stay but I tell them it’s fine for them to leave. I need to be alone. Finally, I call my friends Bob and Merrilee to come sit with me. It’s been five or six hours since his death now, and I realize I’m in shock. My friends arrive, and some time goes by. They tell me I’ve spoken with my sons, and with Michael’s son, that I’ve told them that Michael is dead. They tell me I’ve taken lots of homeopathic flower essences and that I don’t need any more of them right now. I don’t remember any of this! I’ve never felt like this before. I really am in shock.

Then I call Kathy to come over. When Kathy arrives she immediately takes charge. She asks Bob and Merrilee to get some food for me and then comes and sits next to me on the couch. I don’t feel like eating but I’m told to eat anyway, to drink water. After a time of sitting she says, “We have to do something with his body.”

“OK,” I say, “but what?”

“I don’t know … but something.”

She sits awhile longer. Bob and Merrilee return after getting me more food.  Once I’m fed, I’m finally exhausted and I think I can sleep for awhile. They see that I’m taken care of and they leave. Soon Kathy also leaves to “get supplies.” I lie down, so tired that I literally feel numb all over. But I cannot sleep and I do not sleep. I lie in bed trying to meditate, trying to remember talking to the kids, trying to realize that Michael’s dead body is lying in our living room. Nothing feels quite real.

Michael’s been dead for almost 12 hours when I hear the door open and Kathy is back, her arms loaded with “supplies.”. There’s a beautiful red silk sari from India and two bolts of silky material from the fabric store, one olive green, one a light cream color. She’s also brought a special soap. She says, “We are going to bathe him and wrap him.”

I really can’t think very well but I say “ok” and Kathy begins to fill a tub with water. “What are we doing?” I ask.

“We’re bathing him first. Do you have any essential oils?”

Of course we have many essential oils but I immediately know that he should be bathed in frankincense. It’s one of his favorite scents, maybe his only favorite scent, and I go to get it from the shelf in the treatment room we have in our basement.

We start the process by stripping off the pajamas he is wearing.  Now Michael’s body lies naked and vulnerable on the hospital bed. It’s him, but it’s not him, and I don’t feel embarrassed that Kathy is seeing his body like this.

“OK,” Kathy says, “First we have to plug his anus up so that it doesn’t leak out while we bathe him.” I watch as she deftly and efficiently stuffs cotton into his butt. There’s nothing remotely wrong with this which amazes me a bit. I mean, another woman is putting a plug of cotton in my husband’s anus. But nothing seems out of line now, nothing seems too odd.

We get some warm water and the special soap that Kathy has brought with her. I add the frankincense to the water and we begin to wipe him down very gently with washcloths and lovely scented water. Since he is lying on his back, of course we begin with the front of his body. It’s stiff and cold, and I mean really cold, and I find it odd that it’s already so dead feeling. But then I realize that this is exactly how it should be.

Kathy begins to wash his genitals. His testicles have been enlarged for almost 2 years now, and his penis has gradually shrunken into itself until it almost disappears. As we move the testicles aside I see that his skin has been breaking down in the area between his testicles and his legs and it makes me sad. I didn’t know about this, I didn’t help him with this, and then I realize that he probably didn’t know about it either. We gently wipe away the dead skin and I see the raw skin beneath it.

Now it’s time to roll him over but first the water must be emptied. It’s dirty and we need clean water. Kathy has read that the water shouldn’t go down the drain but should be emptied onto the ground. She goes outside to our front garden and dumps the water not realizing that the bar of lavender soap is also being dumped on the lawn. She comes back in and we watch as a crow finds the bar of soap, pecks at it a bit, then picks it up and flies away with his new prize. I’m wondering what this metaphor signifies but I don’t take the time to examine it now.

Regardless, Kathy gets some fresh warm water and we turn Michael’s body onto its side. As we do, there is a gush of black liquid that pours out of his mouth and nose. It is really black! And it has chunks of black material in it and it is horrfiying. Part of my mind is wondering what on earth it is, while the other part is trying not to freak out over the awfulness of it all. The larger part of me realizes that death is not pretty, that this is part of bathing the dead, part of bathing Michael’s body, and thankfully, I am able to continue to do this strange and sacred work of laying out the body.

We are both taken aback, of course, but Kathy, being a midwife of longstanding, just gathers up the sheet, the mattress pad, and the pillow out from under him, and I take them out to the garbage. When I return, she has plugged up his nose and mouth with more cotton. It’s kind of odd looking, but completely necessary. I can already see more of the black liquid collecting on the edges of the cotton in his nose.

As we turn him, I notice a bed sore on his shoulder that I hadn’t seen before. And again, I realize that I don’t think Michael knew about this sore either. There were just too many things going wrong with his body – a sore on his shoulder was almost nothing.

We efficiently wipe down his back and his feet and dry him off. Or dry his body off. It’s a weird juxtaposition. It’s Michael’s body, but it certainly isn’t Michael. It’s a little hard to remember this. Once his body is cleaned we begin to work the red silk sari under him so that it covers the entire bed and hangs down on the sides.

“What now?” I say. We take a little break which is good. This is pretty intense work we are doing  and I realize we are midwifing death. “Deathing,” I think to myself, “We are engaged in deathing.”

Then we’re back at it. Kathy clearly has a vision here and so now it’s time to get the cream-colored silk under and around him. It’s hard work moving a dead body that has been beset by rigor mortis. It had been lying at a weird and uncomfortable looking angle and though Michael certainly can’t feel this discomfort, we feel it, and we move him to a more natural position. We manage and soon there is a full body wrap of this lovely creamy material around him. Already, I can see where we’re headed and it’s beautiful.

Now it’s time for the olive green silky cloth and we wrap it under him, around his shoulders, and begin to make a robe-like thing of it. Kathy carefully folds the fabric as if it is some special garment, for that is exactly what it is. We both notice that Michael’s head looks uncomfortable since the pillow got taken away. I find an old pillow and wrap it in the same green material and slip it under his head. He looks much better now. Regal, even. Comfortable and regal.

Kathy takes the cotton out of his mouth and nose and gently washes off the remaining black liquid from that area. Now I realize it’s time to build an altar! Michael and I have built many altars over the years to mark important moments, and God knows, this is one of the most important.

We need to represent the four directions. In Western mystical tradition, East is for Air, South is for Fire, West is for Water, and North is for Earth. We go outside to find some representatives for the elements. The Coffee Bean tree gives us some unusual brownish red rattling pods to use, and I grab a black stone and a piece of rose quartz for love. Along with a green candle, we’ve now got our earth element.

Fire is easy. I’ve got a red ceramic bowl made by Michael’s granddaughter and I put a heart-shaped red candle holder in it. It’s perfect for this. For Air I have feathers, beautiful feathers that Michael and I have collected on many of our hikes in various locations. I grab the eagle feather and the owl feather. I fill a shimmering blue glass vase with water and daffodils for the Water element, and I get more candles. This altar needs to shine!

I begin lighting the candles for the sacred circle, always going clockwise, starting in the East with the color yellow, the dawning sunlight, the archangel, Raphael. South is red for fire and Spirit and Archangel Michael, West is blue for water and emotions and Archangel Gabriel, and North is green for earth and Archangel Uriel. I light a white lotus candle in the center.

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Now it becomes clear that it’s time to say a few words, words of prayer and peaceful passage, words of gratitude. I am crying wholeheartedly as I do this. I am so grateful to have had this person in my life, this beautiful man, this Michael. Such a blessing. I already miss him so much. I cry and pray.

Kathy is doing her own thing with prayers and it’s clear we both feel the holiness of this moment. We both recognize that we are in the midst of the Sacred, and now is a time for kneeling at the feet of God in whatever way we can.

We take some pictures. We’ve been at this for hours now and I want to remember this forever. I know we have just done something important and something magical. We have taken some kind of raw intuitive guidance from the deepest mystery. I feel hushed and stilled by the beauty of this moment. I am filled with awe at the supreme honor of laying out this body for its final end.

Now at last we blow out the candles and we sit quietly for awhile. Kathy asks me if I want her to spend the night and I say no. I really want to be alone. Once she leaves I sit beside Michael’s body and meditate once again. There is peace and a profound sense of goodness here, and I sink into it as deeply as I can. I feel surrounded by love.

Finally, I rise and kiss Michael’s cold forehead goodnight before going to sleep. “Goodnight, Honey,” I say just as I have said so many times in these past 35 years. Suddenly I realize this is the last night that I will touch him and I cry again and then go to bed.

The Cremation Society will come at 9am the next morning to take his body away but I know that the real work has already been done. Michael’s body has been cleansed and wrapped and laid out, his spirit has been honored as deeply as humanly possible, and the Great Powers have been called upon on his behalf. All is well now. All is truly well.

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The Cost of Love

Now it’s just me. I think in some totally irrational and magical way, I didn’t really believe in Michael’s death. I could surely see it coming, but I didn’t fully appreciate the enormity of him actually not being here any longer.

us at Duncan's thing

May 20, 2018

I’m being amazed by how casually Michael and I spoke of his death. It wasn’t really casual, but we had to establish some way of speaking that would allow the future to unfold. So conversations would begin with, “When I die, you might want to sell everything, and take to the road!” Or I’d say, “When you die, I’ll probably move to a smaller house.” Or “What would you like to have done with your ashes? Do you care where your ashes get put?”

And though we spoke sanely, matter-of-factly, it was anything but easy. But it had to be done. Things had to be arranged.

Sometimes his sentences would begin with, “If I die…,” and I’d say, “I don’t think there’s an ‘if’ about it.” Michael would pause, then smile just a bit, and gently say, “You’re probably right.”

It was all so easy, or seemingly easy, but really, it was agony and we both knew it. Toward the end it became more serious. “Please make sure that Adrian gets the right pen, and give this one to Darby, and this one to Colin.” “I’ll make sure,” I’d say.

Later he’d say, “You really need to learn how to do the books!” I’d say, “I will, I will.” But I never did. I hated doing the books. It involves the computer and a program that I don’t have a clue about, and endless rules about what account goes where, and what bill comes out of this or that account. He wrote it all down for me. In fact, he spent hours creating a cheat sheet with diagrams and pictures and “everything you’ll ever need to know.” And then today, I get the ATT bill and it’s not on the sheet and there’s no trace of what account it comes out of. The best laid plans….

Navigating this grief is a slow learning. There are so many things that make me cry. I found his baseball cap with the Tree of Life on it and it still smelled like him, just a little, and suddenly I am sobbing. Or a song comes on the radio while I’m getting my nails done for his memorial service, and I almost have to leave the shop I’m so overcome.

There are obvious pitfalls such as looking at his photo, or handling one of his precious pens, reading one of his notebooks and finding a letter to me that he never sent. It’s full of love and wishes for me to have a peaceful life. I cry and cry.

My heart literally hurts sometimes. It’s as if it can’t contain this huge sorrow and it bursts out and I find myself rolled into a ball on the bed. “I miss you so much, Michael, I miss you so much.” I say it over and over and it doesn’t make a damned bit of difference. There’s a horrible bodily insistence that wants to touch him again, talk with him, be with him in any form whatsoever. But he’s gone, he’s gone, he’s gone. There’s no way around these times from what I can tell. They have to be lived through.

I think that I thought I would be able to protect myself from the enormity of this sorrow by all the grieving I did in these past 2 years. Ha! The joke’s on me. There is no protection, no way that two energies so intertwined can separate without horrible pain. I am ripped apart.

In some respects, this could mimic the pain of divorce which I remember all too well. But this is much more final. Much more empty. There’s simply a rather large hole that is no longer being filled, and now it’s up to me to learn to live around this hole, within this hole, within this new (w)holeness of me.

It’s weird because really, I’ve been taking care of myself for about 2 years now. Michael was more and more incapacitated and I had to take over more of the responsibilities. But it’s weird because in some way I still felt that it was a “we” doing things. And it was. We grieved together. We talked about dying and death. We had our inside jokes about the drugs and the side effects and the routines Michael’s illness engendered. We understood what We were going through.

Now it’s just me. I think in some totally irrational and magical way, I didn’t really believe in Michael’s death. I could surely see it coming, but I didn’t fully appreciate the enormity of him actually not being here any longer. In some odd way I thought we would still be doing it all together, that somehow, we would do his death together. I know this is nuts but it doesn’t matter. We were wrapped in each other’s lives in thousands of little ways and the shock of him actually being gone is almost incomprehensible.

A week after Michael’s death, I take my first trip out of the house. I am fragile — it’s the only word that fits. I am raw, an open festering wound. I am wrapped in a sorrow I’ve never known before. I see a woman I barely know in the grocery store and she grabs my arms, looks searchingly into my eyes, and says, “Are you peaceful yet?” I was thoroughly taken aback. Really? I stumbled and said something like, “I’m nowhere near peaceful right now.”

Then yesterday a neighbor stops me on the street and asks, “Are you just sad all the time?” And my answer is no. I’m not sad all the time. And I’m not completely peaceful either. I’m absolutely deeply in the middle of a huge grief. And when I’m sad, I’m really sad. And when I’m not, I’m more or less fully engaged with whatever is happening in the moment. There are even times of real peace. This has made me realize quite starkly the profound difference between depression and grief, for depression is filled with hopelessness, and I’m not hopeless.

Yesterday was also the first day that I fully realized that I’m on my own. I know this is obvious, but it didn’t really hit me until then. Yesterday I was struck by being a “widow.” Such a mournful word. I think it’s the “w’s” that define its mournfulness in some way – their sound at the beginning and the awful silent end. I’m a widow and I’m on my own and I have to take care of myself.

And yet, I don’t feel like a widow. I feel like a person who is carrying a huge sorrow, and I know that this sorrow has opened and strengthened me in ways I can’t even begin to fathom yet.

Part of me wishes to skip ahead a year, to a time when this pain is more distant, more abstract. An ache in my psyche but no longer a red bleeding wound. But of course, this is impossible. This pain must be lived through. This pain is the price of love. I am being taught the price of love. And I would pay it again, even knowing all of this, I would pay it again.

 

 

In Memoriam

As far as I know, there have been three miracles around Michael’s death.

Michael

May 13, 2018

How does one remember a love so long and true? How can I speak of my love without falling apart, without being down on my knees, without knowing that any words I could ever speak would be inadequate and pale beside the reality?

As far as I know, there have been three miracles around Michael’s death. The first miracle is that I haven’t had a single migraine headache since the day he died, and I’ve had severe migraines for 25 years. In what is certainly the most difficult time of my life, I haven’t had headaches. I believe that Michael took the underlying pattern of my headaches with him when he left. It was his parting gift to me.

Michael was a deeply spiritual man. In fact, our first real conversation outside of work-related things was about our shared excitement over the Seth books and the underlying reality they revealed. We agreed that we both knew that Seth was revealing the Truth. We knew we were being taught the meaning of life and of death. And we knew that few others shared our passion for this spiritual work. I had already loved his earthy quick dry wit, but now something else emerged. I realized I had found a like-minded soul.

From that moment on, each of us looked for reasons to spend time together – to laugh, to speculate, to talk, to agree on how to value the immense beauty of the Mystery that contains us. From that moment on, it was love.

When Michael died, we’d been together for almost 35 years, and we’d known that we were soul mates. When we met, both of us were coming out of relationships that had scarred us, and we were wary. Well, actually, I was wary. Michael already knew we were supposed to be together. In fact, he said that he’d known it on the day we met more than a year before this. All I had known was that this man was interesting, smart, and really funny. And I wanted more.

Through fits and starts we found our way to each other and were married. It was weird for me. I’d always ridden on passion, and though there was a kind of passion, this was a quiet and calm steadiness that continually surprised me. This was a passion that I didn’t understand. This was Michael.

We raised three good boys into three good men together. We hear so many stories of children so damaged by divorce that their lives are shattered. And though there was surely damage, all three of these boys grew into good men, and to a large extent, I believe that this is because of Michael, because of the kind of man he was, the kind of model he was.

Michael was so amazing that without a word from me, he knew how to be with my children. He knew how to play with them, how to make fun out of He Man figures and legos, how to soothe a frightened child, how to calm an angry one. He was a miracle right from the start.

And saying that, it took me awhile to realize what a real miracle he was – for we could talk about anything that arose between us. Granted, it was always me bringing things up, but when I did, he’d go there with me – through all the highs and lows, he never wavered. His patience with my moods, my quicksilver gyrations, my endless questioning became the balm for my soul. I, in turn, became the language of his heart.

He was also brilliant. His knowledge of esoterica and his ability to integrate genuinely difficult information into workable and practical experience was more developed than anyone else’s I’ve ever met.

It was his brilliance and his inspiration that initiated Eastwind School into being. It was mine that engendered Eastwind Healing Center. Neither of us could have done it alone. It was the alchemy of our marriage, the balance of spirit and heart, the magic of true love, that allowed the first integrative medicine center in Iowa to be born. It was here that we learned the language of teaching in the highest sense that allowed so many to be touched by our work together.

Michael was the most spiritually devoted man I’ve ever known. He literally spent his entire adult life studying and practicing various systems of self development. He started with TM at age 19, then went to Seth, then to the Kabbalah, then to The Tree of Life, then to Western magical traditions. Along the way he also studied Tibetan Buddhism, Reiki, energy healing, Chinese medicine, and various other esoteric healing methods. He was literally the most learnèd man I’ve ever known in the integration of strange magic. His whole adult life was spent in the quest for enlightenment.

In December of 2015 we were initiated into the meditational practice of Light and Sound. Four months later, on April 12, 2016 he realized his essential nature, became enlightened, and was forever changed. I do not say this lightly. This was the real thing and it was evident in the deepening calm and presence around him, a presence that pervaded even the most extreme physical difficulties.

At that time, though we didn’t have the diagnosis, he was already suffering from the disease that killed him. Once he was diagnosed and quit working as a psychologist and a healer, he struggled to find some purpose that would fulfill him. He never really found one. In many ways I think that his enlightenment was his purpose, and it is what allowed him to die. He’d done what he set out to do, and really, there wasn’t anything more that he needed from this life.

We called a psychic who we’d relied on through the years for wisdom and guidance. She told him that he would die within two years unless he learned to receive. She kept saying that: “You must learn to receive, you must learn to receive.” She said he had been a healer in many lifetimes, and that in all of those lifetimes he had given more than he’d received, and in that process, he’d created an imbalance that required adjustment. She said that the final learning of this lifetime was to open his heart to receive love from others, not just from me, but from all the many who were willing to give it in ways both small and large.

IMG_4158While he was in the hospital this last month, I did a tarot card reading on the course of his illness. There were 7 major arcana in this reading which is a very strong indicator that one is now in the hands of Fate with little to no ability to control the outcome. In this reading, the outcome card was The Star — the card of transcendence. When I looked at the reading, I knew he was dying soon. I also knew that when the Tower’s lightning bolt struck, Michael was held in the lap of the Great Mother (the Empress). It was clear that he would move into a state of trust and peace (the Fool) that would lead to The Star.

Five days before he died, Michael said that he realized that all the things that involved dying were easily falling into place, while the things that involved living, were not. I don’t think he believed he would be dead within five days, but he did see that death was coming. He had heard his body’s spirit telling him it couldn’t go on much longer, and he accepted it’s message.

He began to cry more easily than he ever had, and this was a man who almost never cried. He cried when people brought food to our door, he cried when friends dropped in for a short visit, he cried over the kindness of the Hospice team, he cried when his son helped him brush his teeth, he cried after meditating because he was so full of love that he was ecstatic and grateful.

I believe that in the end he did learn to receive. He was bedridden and absolutely reliant on others for his care, and his dear spirit became even gentler, even more loving. He started calling me “my love.” “My love, would you be able to get me another drink?” “Thank you, my love.” He’d never done that before and I knew that in his absolute reliance on others for help, he was experiencing a depth of receiving he hadn’t previously realized.

On April 25th, he woke me up at 3:30 am. This was the second miracle. I had put on sound-deafening headphones because of a barking dog in our neighborhood. I’d also taken a sleeping pill out of sheer exhaustion and a profound need for sleep. Though there was no physical way that he could have aroused me, I “heard” him calling me and I awakened.

I rushed into the living room to find him gasping for breath and demonstrating what I now know is a “death rattle” – his body so full of fluid that he could barely breathe or speak. He was physically in great distress. I hooked him up to oxygen but it didn’t help. Then I started to do energy work around his crown and 3rdeye and heart, particularly his crown, opening it so that his spirit could fly out easily. At this point tears were flowing down my face and falling on his bald head. I kept saying, “I love you so much, I love you so much.” With his last gasp he said, “…love…you.” His eyes rolled up to the top of his head, there was one last shudder, his eyes rolled down, and he was gone. Our last words were words of nothing but love.

When he died I felt a brief, deep shock, and then, suddenly, I was very, very calm. A peace came over me and I meditated and sat with his body by myself until Hospice came and then my brother and his wife awakened.

My brother’s wife came into the living room where Michael’s body was laid and said she had a headache. She said it was a weird headache in that she was seeing stars. I said it sounded like it could be the aura that precedes a migraine. I asked her if she wanted some medication but she said it didn’t really hurt.

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And here is the third miracle: On their way back to Colorado, my sister-in-law told my brother that she’d realized that the only time she saw stars was when she was looking at Michael’s body. Clearly, he was sending us all a message.

The peace of Michael’s death has remained in our home. I am in deep grief, but there is a level of stillness that wasn’t here before. I know he went to the Stars.  Finally, he has found his way back home.

 

 

He is Gone

Michael

This is the picture of Michael that I took on the day of his enlightenment: April 12, 2016.

On April 25, 2018 at 3:41am Michael passed from this life to the next. I will be writing about it once I am able. He awakened me at around 3:20am and I found him struggling to breathe. I got oxygen started but it didn’t help and there was a horrible deep “death rattle” in his chest. I kept saying “I love you so much, I love you so much” while trying to ease his discomfort with energy work. His last words were “I love you.” Then his eyes rolled up into his head, rolled back down, and he died. I am in grief beyond words.

Here is the obituary that he wrote for himself in February.

Dr. Michael J. Santangelo, 68, died on April 25, 2018 at home in Iowa City from complications of amyloidosis. Michael was born on April 20, 1950, oldest child of Michael F. Santangelo and Anna Norma (Zorio) Santangelo.

He grew up in Philadelphia and in its suburb of Levittown, PA. After finishing twelve years of parochial school, he attended Virginia Tech, earning a bachelors degree in Mathematics, as well as a masters and doctorate degrees in psychology. While in graduate school, his son Adrian was born.

After graduation, Michael worked as a clinical psychologist in mental health centers in Muscatine and Cedar Rapids, IA. During this time, he served as director of clinical services and headed a partial hospitalization program for the chronically mentally ill. After leaving community mental health, he worked as an associate in three private practices, was a consultant with the Iowa Department of Human Services, and co-directed behavioral research in hemophilia and AIDS at The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. At about this time, his long-term disenchantment with the traditional practice of psychology led him to pursue training in Asian massage, traditional Chinese medicine, naturopathy, and energy medicine.

In 1987, Michael married Candida Maurer, the love of his life, and became step-father to her two sons, Colin and Darby. Together, Michael and Candida founded what is now Eastwind Healing Center in 1994, and Eastwind School of Holistic Healing in 1997, a massage school they directed and taught in for ten years. The focus of their healing practice has been the integration of psychology and alternative healthcare, which made the Center the first of its kind in Iowa.

Michael’s interests were always esoteric and eclectic. From an early age, he was interested in spirituality and metaphysics. For many years and until his death, he was a member of Builders of the Adytum (BOTA) and the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC), two prominent organizations that follow the teachings of the Western mystery tradition, especially Qabalah and Tarot. He also served on the editorial board of the Rose+Croix Journal, the academic publication of AMORC.

Michael studied and practiced meditation since his adolescence, and this background informed his more than forty years in the professional practice of healthcare. His approach to working with others was very eclectic, and he used his varied background to assist people with many different problems, from emotional and mental, to physical and spiritual. He also taught extensively at all levels, from community education to undergraduate and graduate courses in psychology. Later in his life, his teaching focused primarily on spiritual matters. His lectures were always amply spiced with his irreverent sense of humor. He also wrote, publishing books on personal growth and astrology, yahtzee, and writing a spiritual blog.

Outside of his professional interests, Michael enjoyed reading, research, hiking, electronic gadgets, and recumbent bicycles. He walked a portion of the Camino de Santiago at the age of 64. His favorite hobby, however, was fountain pens. He loved his pens, inks, and paper, and was always ready to seek out “converts” to the art of handwriting. He thoroughly enjoyed producing hand-written letters sealed with custom wax seals, and transcribing famous speeches and spiritual texts using his writing instruments.

Michael is survived by Candida Maurer, his beloved wife of almost 31 years; his son Adrian (Pamela) and his grandchildren Heather and Gavin; his mother; his sister Lisa-Marie; his brother Steven; and by his step-sons Colin (Angela Sarff) Kealey and Darby (Megan Galizia) Kealey. He was preceded in death by his father.

There will be a Ritual Celebration of Life at Hotel Vetro ballroom on May 12th at 3pm.

In lieu of flowers, please make contributions to Iowa City Hospice in his name.

Per me, nihil possum facere.
(Of myself, I can do nothing)

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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.

 

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.