Impermanence

On the day of the full moon, I buried his ashes in our garden. I also put some of his “little treasures” into the hole with him, and all of it was watered by my copious tears and my gratitude, deep and true.

Impermanence

Impermanence by James R. Eads

9/1/18

I lost my center this past week. Circumstances arose that left me feeling needy and more alone. I’ve had plenty of people around, so it’s not that. But I can feel the neediness pulsing in my blood and running its greedy hands over my skin, and it’s taken days of meditation and thought to find my center again today.

Of course, there were several days in which I didn’t realize the loss of my center – days of confusion and excitement and fantasy that things are really just fine, that I am just fine. I’m still not sure what pulled me away from myself though I suspect that finally burying Michael’s ashes is a big part of it.

On the day of the full moon, I buried his ashes in our garden. I also put some of his “little treasures” into the hole with him, and all of it was watered by my copious tears and my gratitude, deep and true. Since then, I actually feel myself letting go a bit more. I feel the beauty of freedom, and I know that this freedom is the gift of accepting a greater intensity of impermanence. But this feeling of freedom, this acceptance of impermanence, also seems to be so new that my ground has once again been shaken. For now, there’s no kidding myself in any way, Michael is really gone.

No one is as close as Michael was, and maybe no one ever will be that close again. I don’t know. But I do know that I’m very aware of giving others space. I think I’ve been good at giving space for a long time. But before, I always had Michael to come home to, Michael to talk to, Michael to work it through with. This brought me comfort and peace and I didn’t need connections to others the way I currently do. So, and this seems so obvious, one of the main understandings is that my friends aren’t going to replace the level of intimacy that I have lost. And though it seems obvious, living it is something else again.

What I’ve realized with friends, is the utter importance of not being sticky. Love feels sticky to me when there’s a glue-like pull to it. It’s a love that’s not free, a love that needs something, a love that wants too much.

Certainly, I have levels of intimacy with others. But of course, none of these relationships can fill in for one that was 35 years long. It’s just not possible. And more to the point, I just can’t expect it to be.

I’ve asked my closest friends whether they have felt me being sticky. They all say they have not, but maybe they would say that anyway, though actually I believe they are the kinds of people who tell the truth when asked. Mostly people keep telling me how “strong” I’m being, but I’ve got to say, it doesn’t always feel this way.

For instance, I certainly experience this stickiness inside of me. There are times when I go through layers of emotional garbage to get to a more spacious place, and I always do it alone. I don’t put it on others, don’t talk about it, and I don’t expect others to fill up my emptiness. But oh, sometimes, how I wish they could!

I’ve noticed that if I’m set to have lunch or dinner with a friend, and they have to cancel for some reason, I’m certainly disappointed. The disappointment can then turn into feelings of anger, or loneliness, or a sense of rejection, along with several iterations of why things got canceled and whether there is some kind of problem in our relationship. It’s exhausting when it happens and thankfully, it only happens occasionally, but it can go on for quite some time. These are the times when my center feels gone.

Eventually, meditation allows me to move to the stronger place – the place in which I know that I love, and am loved, in return. It seems so easy to write these words, and yet the years of work on the self that have gone into these words, have been mighty long and arduous indeed. And now all of that work is being tested in the biggest way possible.

All of this has made me realize that there’s something new in me now that wasn’t there before, and it’s something about impermanence, about holding things lightly, about becoming comfortable with being truly alone.

What I know for sure is that watching one’s mate die over a long period of time has made me extraordinarily aware of the actual experience of impermanence. For as one slowly dies, one thing after another changes and is lost, and one thing after another must be surrendered. As Michael used to say, it’s the death of a thousand cuts. Before, impermanence was an interesting concept, part of understanding the way things work, part of spiritual philosophy, but now it’s a living reality.

Something that I unrealistically thought would last forever, didn’t. And yes, of course on some level, the relationship with Michael is continuing and is alive in me. But in this human realm, it’s over. And one of the main lessons that his death affords me, is to truly grasp that nothing lasts. Nothing.

It’s horrendous, really. We just can’t take it in because it is such a huge and painful lesson. Nothing, not a single thing that I own or do or am, lasts in this physical world. I’m currently struggling with this on a daily basis. But it’s an excellent struggle! It requires me to go to my Higher Self for renewal and sanity. It requires me to look at all of my possessions from a different perspective. It asks me to let go of the previous moment, and to embrace this one. If I don’t want to act crazy, or be too needy, or lose my stability, I must go to my center and ground, over and over again, many times a day.

So, finding the stable place, the strong place, is all up to me. There’s no one to bounce it off of the way I bounced it with Michael. I know this is good for me. I know it’s supporting my real growth, but it’s hard and I have to be very alert to the missteps that are caused by need. And somehow, it’s all connected to love, and learning to love from a clearer place inside of me.

Part of what is proceeding from this greater understanding of impermanence is that, as far as I can tell, I haven’t made any important decisions out of fear! When I really know that nothing lasts, it allows me to let go more easily. For example, I was sorely tempted to buy a new house a few months ago. It was a fine house in the perfect part of town. What a great distraction it would have been! More importantly, it would have been an avoidance of the very real need to process my grief, and there have been so many times when I have wished to avoid this endless processing. But impermanence says there will be other houses, or there won’t, and it doesn’t really matter.

I know that this work with impermanence and aloneness, like all work with the self, is an ongoing practice that requires me to be vigilant, and honest, and most meaningfully, compassionate with myself. And this compassion is really just another way of saying that I’m learning a deeper level of self-love.

This is not a sticky love, but a love built on the truth that everything changes. It’s a love built on the ability to surrender. It’s an acceptance of the reality of constant change at the deepest level. Grasping the truth of impermanence means that much of what I think and feel is so important, is simply ego. And when I genuinely know this, I am forced to find that which is permanent. For there is one thing that lasts, and only one.

I told a friend recently that when I go into deep meditation, my current mantra is a surrender to love. “I am Love, being Loved, by Love.” Try it for yourself, if you’d like. For me, it’s a paradoxical sense of receiving infinite love into my heart, and simultaneously giving infinite love out from my heart. It’s a constant flowing motion that contains utter stillness at its center. For always, the lessons eternally come back to the principles we’ve been shown, to those things we know in our bones. Always, they come back to the One True Thing.

 

 

 

 

God Is Not A Masochist

I’m realizing how small a thing is Michael’s death. For more than 2 years, his living and dying has been so central to my world that it’s sometimes hard to remember that others aren’t in the same place.

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August 20, 2018

Three days ago, I didn’t cry for the first time in almost two years. I didn’t know this until the end of the day when I was reading in bed and suddenly became aware that there had been no tears that day. Then I obsessively counted the days, for I remembered being dry-eyed on the 18th day after Michael’s diagnosis. So, it’s been 728 days since I haven’t cried. It made me wonder if I’m moving into a different phase of grief, and perhaps I am.

I’m realizing how small a thing is Michael’s death. For more than 2 years, his living and dying has been so central to my world that it’s sometimes hard to remember that others aren’t in the same place.

Of course, I know that they are not, and I’ve known that all along. There are only a few of us who are deeply affected by any death, and of those few, I am the one most affected by Michael’s death. It’s the way it is and it’s the way it should be. But I’m realizing how small his death really is.

In the past few days I have heard from a neighbor about the imminent death of her granddaughter’s mother. I’ve heard about a woman whose husband was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died only two weeks later. I know a woman whose father, father-in-law, and dog all died within a few months of each other. Death is all around us, all the time!

And the death of a single person, while terribly sad for me, is just the death of a 68-year old man who loved and was loved by his wife, his family, and a few close friends. And isn’t this what all of us get if we’re lucky? Isn’t this just how it is?

As much as all of this is true, it doesn’t change the sometimes desperate loneliness that engulfs me. I am more alone than I have ever been, and there’s a strong bend toward isolation and numbing out. Fortunately, my worst addiction at this point seems to be too much time with mediocre television and old movies, and I figure as isolation and numbing go, it’s not so bad. And to some degree, my isolation is by choice.

Thankfully, there are beautiful, kind people who offer their company. Sometimes I take them up on it, and sometimes, I do not. I’m so grateful for their reaching out, so grateful that many make the attempt to keep me connected to life. But this latest phase of grief seems to be about finding the healthy mixture of solitude and company. For often I end up feeling lonely when I’m with others, and then I make a concerted effort to stay engaged, to be truly touched and touchable, and for the most part, I’m successful. Of course, the person I’m really missing just isn’t here, and there’s simply no replacement for him.

One thing I know now is why widows and widowers often die soon after their spouse is gone. They are literally lost, literally unable to function, literally anchorless. I don’t feel quite this intensity of lost-ness myself, but I can feel the pull of it, and I understand.

Similarly, a woman I know said to me this week that she’s aware she’s been spending her whole life waiting to be rescued! This really hit me, for I have had the same feeling. It’s ancient and unreasonable and a complete fantasy, but it’s there – I’m waiting for rescue. I discover it lurking beneath my tears these days, and once I discover it, I’m usually able to let it be, and fortunately, I don’t act on it. But still, it’s a strong feeling, a deep and usually unconscious desire.

As little girls, many of us were raised on fairy tales. In these tales, there was always a beautiful princess who is rescued by a handsome prince. I don’t know if little boys bought into the handsome prince story, but I completely bought the princess scenario!

My fantasy life was filled with the Prince. As a child, I would ride in the backseat of the car on the endless trips to our grandmother’s house in Waverly, Iowa, and dream of the Prince, coming the other way on the highway in his car, somehow traveling through rural Iowa. At some point, I would always lean up against the car window so that I would be more visible. I knew that one day, quite suddenly, he would drive by and happen to glance into our car as he passed, and of course, he would see me! Immediately, he would know that I was to be his Princess. He would stop us, take me into his car, and rescue me forever from my wretched life! It was all quite dramatic and totally unbelievable, but it held my attention for years. I think I can even say that my first marriage was my slightly-matured version of this fairytale.

My “mature” version is that somehow Michael isn’t really dead, or that his Spirit is so strong that it comes through to guide me, or even that some other Prince is driving down the highway looking for me now.

It’s all ridiculous, and I know it, but it’s part of the subtle experience of Michael’s loss that I am currently working with. It’s the Child Self’s sad realization that there is no “rescue,” that this is real life, and that this is exactly what I signed up for. It’s a blessing to know this for it allows me to observe these feelings rather than to believe them. And like all feelings, they pass, and the Higher Self is left to watch them passing, and to be at least a little bemused by their intensity.

Clearly, part of the lesson is learning to live with loneliness without being taken under by it, and part of it is finally loving myself enough to grow up. I’m still not sure if we’re ever completely grown, and actually, I’m pretty sure that we’re not. I just returned from a week-long meditation retreat in which the teacher stated that as far as he knows, “there’s no upper limit” in terms of consciousness and how high we can go. I feel that now. Growing up is never complete, for consciousness is infinite and alive, and as much as we grow, it is always outgrowing us.

I feel that at a spiritual level I have asked for this crash course in independence, and I’m getting it. But it is a “crash” course, and it is sometimes startling, terrifying and bruising. Regardless, it’s important for all of us to be as awake as we can be when death arrives at our door. I’ve signed up to be challenged to go more deeply into my spiritual center, to ride these waves of grief with as much consciousness as I can summon, and to delineate this journey with whatever truth and clarity I can embody.

My friend Fran always says that “God is not a masochist.” Think about that for a moment because it gets deeper as you do. From the highest level, the first implication is that God is Good and that we can have utter faith in that goodness. The second implication is that God never does anything that hurts God, meaning that any death, all deaths, are part of a greater plan. The One thing is always evolving, and even if we don’t understand Its movements, It is always growing toward the higher Good. Finally, it is a statement of absolute trust in the unknowable evolution of consciousness.

I cling to this idea at times when I’m overcome with sorrow, and I meditate on it in times of peace. God is not a masochist. And finally I understand, neither am I.

Telling the Truth

Finally, in a moment of clarity and pain, I tell him that I can’t do “this” for another seven years, that I will always take care of him, but I might find another house to live in, another place to stay. I know this hurts him which engenders even more guilt, but I feel I will collapse into a lesser self if I don’t say it, if I don’t tell this level of truth.

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July 13, 2018

I was walking the dog this evening when I woman I barely know stops me to express her condolences. But it rapidly becomes clear that what she really wants to say is that her husband has just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” I say, “I know what kind of a strain that can be.”

“Tell me,” she says, “tell me what it’s really like.”

I am a bit taken aback since no one has asked me this in exactly this way, and I know she is asking from a place of real need, a place of real questioning.

As I continue my walk home I realize that I haven’t yet told the truth, or at least, not the whole truth as I now know it, of my own experience. For truth, like everything in life, has many layers and many permutations. It changes and grows as life reveals itself. I’ve been waiting for the right time, and now it appears. For more than two years I’ve been telling a partial truth but it is only now that I can begin to tell more of it. I promised Michael that I wouldn’t say much of this until after he was dead and I have honored that promise. But I have to tell the truth, for what good is any writing if the truth isn’t told?

For the past thirty-five years, I have been Michael’s partner in relative health and then, over two years ago, I became his partner in mortal illness. And for more than two years, I am his caregiver. Endless trips to the doctor, endless chemotherapy treatments, endless time in his hospital room, endless worry and stress, and endless pain of different sorts for both of us.

His body degenerates markedly. System after system begins to fail, and then fails even more. It’s hard for him to eat, to walk, to move, to sleep. He has horrible breath, his skin and muscles and teeth are breaking down, and perhaps worst of all, he’s impotent. So, we leave our lovership behind, and become more of what we’ve always been. We are best friends, living together while one of us is dying.

After more than a year of no progress with his illness, my thoughts grow darker. One of the horrors is that I find myself wishing for his death. Several friends say he is hanging on to life for me. I’m not sure if this is true, but now there are times when I close my door, sob uncontrollably, and tell his spirit it’s ok to let go. I tell his higher self that I’ll be fine, that I can make it without him, that he doesn’t need to worry about me. And maybe he’s hanging on for me, or maybe it’s for something else, something unnameable. He continues to search for a life purpose and even though he doesn’t find one, he hangs on.

The truth of caregiving, and the truth of a long dying, is that those who are closest get angry and scared and worried and burned out. The truth is that as a caregiver, I feel guilty that I can’t live up to the very real burden of caring that is placed upon me. The truth of a long dying is that I am carrying a level of burden that only those others who have endured it can understand.

For one of the heaviest burdens is supporting a person who may not be ready to look at their dying, their approaching death, and the enormous toll on those who love them. And the truth of my caregiving, the one I feel the most guilt about, is that there are times when I think about walking away. Michael continues to stubbornly project a future that lasts for five to seven more years of what we are enduring. And because I always have, I believe in his force of will, his ability to manifest, and seven more years of living together in this half-life, feels unsustainable to me, feels literally, like a living death.

Finally, in a moment of clarity and pain, I tell him that I can’t do “this” for another seven years, that I will always take care of him, but I might find another house to live in, another place to stay. I know this hurts him which engenders even more guilt, but I feel I will collapse into a lesser self if I don’t say it, if I don’t tell this level of truth. But in spite of this, I don’t leave. I can’t leave. As much as I would sometimes like to leave, I must be here for my friend. Still, it is almost unbearable.

The two years begin to feel endless. He tries not to drag me down, though I am dragged down nonetheless. He is sick and his body is literally falling apart. But in spite of this, I admire him. For the most part, he suffers well. He keeps going, keeps believing, keeps trying to do everything he can to get better. At some point last December, we are so close that I have dropped any thought of leaving him and I tell him this. I am fully committed to being with him to the end, whenever that is. There is a new level of trust and intimacy between us, and I’m ready to endure whatever life may bring.

Regardless, his treatment isn’t working and he’s not improving. At our January hospital appointment, a “salvage transplant” is offered. After several worried days, Michael decides not to pursue it. He says there is no data to support it. I am so relieved! I realize I haven’t been breathing, dreading all that another transplant would mean. Finally, I can take a breath.

We leave for Florida for a month and begin to make plans for his death. It is an excruciating time between us. And it is a time for deep healing – a time when everything is said, when all the love and pain and fear are told and known. In some ways, we are the closest we’ve ever been. We come home with my belief that we are now on the road to Michael’s long degenerative death.

Then, at our next medical appointment in March, the doctor dangles a second stem cell transplant in front of him again. The doctor tells Michael it may “improve his quality of life.” These seem to be the magic words and when the doctor leaves the room for a moment, Michael literally whirls his head toward me with the most intense look I’ve ever seen. He wants this transplant! Even though he said he didn’t want it two months ago, now he wants it.

The doctor re-enters the room and I ask the pointed questions that Michael isn’t asking, the questions about the potential effects of the second transplant.

“Will the swelling in his tongue go away so that he can eat more easily?” “No.”

“Will the swelling in his legs improve?” “No.”

“Will his skin improve?” “No.”

“Will the deposits in his heart dissolve?” “No.”

“Will the deposits in other parts of his body go away?” “No.”

“Will his impotence disappear?” “No.”

“So, what will get better?” “It is likely that he will have more energy.”

I am appalled. I think to myself that this isn’t worth risking what life he has left. But Michael wants this, and as I sit in numbed and shocked awareness, he agrees to another transplant.

Another transplant, after I thought we’d spent the past month coming to peace with his dying. Another transplant, meaning weeks in the hospital while he clings to a slim thread of hope and life. Another transplant, which may literally kill him but which offers the possibility of “more energy.” Another transplant. It feels foolish and stupid and wrong, and then I am angry. I want to scream at him, “Can’t you see you are dying? Can’t we just get on with it?”

But I don’t. He can’t see it. Not yet. It’s too much to believe, too much to take in. So, I agree to help him. I agree to back him up as completely as I can.

So, this caregiver becomes a cheerleader, a false witness to a process that is so obviously flawed, and so obviously painful, that the truth, the whole truth, can’t be said clearly enough. For when does one support the quest for a cure, and when does one say it is foolish? When is it honest to say what one sees and feels? And when is it simply cruel? And, really, what can anyone say about another’s desire to keep trying to live?

Relationships, real relationships, are far more nuanced than any story can tell. Real relationships involve compromises and choices and changes, some of which literally lead to life-denying patterns and pain.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. He dies 32 days after the transplant and he is gone. Does our change in relationship mean I don’t grieve deeply and truly, that I don’t suffer in my heart and soul? For surely, I do. I have lost my best friend and I miss him with an intensity that surprises, scares, and humbles me.

A few weeks ago, I found a letter that Michael never sent to me. It was roughly written in one of his many notebooks while he was still in the hospital, and it was dated two weeks before he died. He’d had a particularly awful day and in it, he said he realized that he was dying and he had accepted it. He felt he still had a fair amount of time to live but he was philosophically open. He was in and out of deep and frequent meditations at that point and he knew he was going to a place without a body, a place without the pain of earthly existence.

He apologized for putting me through all that he had put me through, and he wished for me to find my freedom and my peace. The letter ends with this: “Wherever I am, whatever I am, know that I hold you close in my love and consciousness for all eternity. (Imagine the hubris of that statement!). But if it can be stated in truth, I’m saying it with all my being.” These are the last words he ever wrote and they always make me cry.

We came together as soul mates, and he died as my soul’s companion. My mind flashes on our last moments together every single day. He died with our last words being words of love, words gasped out in the final terrifying minutes of his life. I’m so glad for this, so filled by it. I believe he had a beautiful death.

Clearly, our souls were meant to be together, to accomplish certain things together, to love and learn together. But our mission is over now. Knowing the depth of Michael’s soul, the depth of his spiritual practice, I can only assume that he accomplished what he was meant to accomplish. I can only assume that he was done with this life.

So now I can tell the truth. The truth of his illness and his impotence and how it confined our relationship, the truth of my reluctance to fully commit to seven more years of our half-life together, the truth of his fears and his final acceptance of death. And ultimately, the truth that love takes many forms. For we loved each other, through all the missteps and sorrows and joys, and in the end, it is all that matters.

Stargazer

There is kindness, and thoughtfulness, and remembrance. And there is the love that continuously streams into this world, everywhere I look, from every direction, the love that animates all of life.

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June 30, 2018

Michael has been gone for 66 days now — 66 long, lonely days. Some of them pretty good, some of them really hard. I notice that I’m still counting the days but now I can count two months as well, and oddly, this feels like some sort of milestone. His death is now months ago instead of days. I’m amazed that it’s been this long a time, and I’m amazed that it’s been this short. The death of a loved one is truly timeless. But somehow, I’ve lived through it and somehow, things are becoming slightly easier, slightly better. When people ask I say, “I am in deep grief, and I’m also just fine. And both are true.”

Lately I’ve been noticing a subtle shift in the energy of many of those around me. I’m betting that everyone who is in grief comes to this realization at some point. I’m noticing that some people, even ones I’ve known for years, no longer ask me how I’m doing with my grief. Or if they do, they want to hear the happy version, the strong version, the version that doesn’t scare them.

I can tell right away which people don’t want to hear the depths, and really, it’s probably most people, and really, it’s fine. They want to hear that I’m having a good day, that life is getting back to normal, that things are moving along. It’s been over two months and I guess that for most of the world, it’s better if I’m moving on.

I don’t blame them! God knows it’s hard to hear each other’s pain, and it can be frightening. We really don’t know what to do with pain — our own or each other’s — we get scared of it and we don’t know what to say. I mean, who wants to know that I’m still suffering the loss of my beloved companion? Who actually wants to hear about death and grief? Who wants to encompass the truth that it goes on and on?

For that matter, I wish I didn’t have to hear about it inside of myself. I wish I didn’t have to feel it. I wish I could just move on to the happy, strong version of myself all of the time instead of just part of the time. But that’s not real and there is no escape for me in this kind of happy talk.

Maybe others are uncomfortable because they have a sense of needing to fix the problem of my grief, to cheer me up, to distract me.  But I don’t need distracting. I’m learning to do that on my own. And I don’t need cheering, for I am learning to live in the moment more consciously, and there’s great joy to be found here. And finally, there is no cure for grief. It can’t be fixed because the horrible truth is, there’s no cure for life itself! Grief is inevitable in every life, and honestly, it doesn’t need fixing. It simply needs acknowledgment.

We want to believe that we have control over things, and that life won’t overwhelm us. We want to believe that we’ve developed our mental and emotional strategies so well that we are protected from the hard events. We want to believe that we know how to cope. We want to put death behind us, far away from the life we are living.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, I’m one of those people who wants to know the depths, who wants to plunge into life’s mysteries, tragedies, and subtleties. I’m one of those people who wants to know and tell the truth. Thankfully, people who are close to me still ask, and these precious ones listen and hear my honest feelings. Others do not. And as I said, I truly don’t blame them. But grief isn’t like this. It doesn’t just come to a neat and final end.

In some ways, I have moved on. I’m making plans for a yoga retreat, a meditation retreat, a trip to meet my new grandson. This is good and necessary and part of healing. But it also has a kind of hollowness to it. It rings empty inside of me, a bell with no one to hear it.

Michael always heard my bell. He always responded to my heart’s songs. And whether he understood them or not, he tried to vibrate to their frequency just as I vibrated to his. And it strikes me that for 35 years I wasn’t ever really lonely. What a blessing! I’m learning it’s a remarkable thing to be able to say — I wasn’t ever seriously lonely.

Four days ago, I lived through our first wedding anniversary without Michael. I had been doing pretty well. I’m back at work and enjoying it. Maybe being a therapist is easier now because other events have paled in comparison to my husband’s dying and death. Maybe it is because I am ready for a shift into another level of my work, and maybe it is because I am able to witness my own process with greater detachment and depth. Regardless, work has been good.

At any rate, I see clients on our anniversary and I am doing fine. I haven’t cried and I idly wonder if I might be going to make it through the day in far better shape than I had predicted. And then, I go for a walk. As I am walking, I realize that I am walking alone, and that I may walk alone now for the rest of my life. I realize that it is my anniversary and there’s no one to share it with, no one to honor it with me, no one to send me flowers. Suddenly, I am overwhelmed with loneliness and sorrow.

Where do these thoughts come from? I want to dismiss them, let them go, leave them alone, but oh, I am sad. I start to weep, just a few tears, and I start to miss my soul’s companion with such fierce yearning, such wracking pain.

I come home and really break down. As I’m crying, I think that it is good. I’m getting these feelings out. They need to be expressed and I’m glad that I can cry like this on our anniversary. Now I am sobbing, keening, raw with emotion, love, and longing. Once again, I am plunged back into realizing that Michael is really dead and that I will never see him again. It’s almost unbearable.

But then … the most beautiful bouquet of flowers arrives at my door – a huge vase of Stargazer lilies. The card says, “Thinking of you today. It’s still a day to celebrate in these difficult times. Love from the Santangelo family.”

The flowers are from Michael’s dear son and his family. Somehow, they have remembered our day, have sent me flowers. And to put a finer point on it, they are “stargazers,” for that is what Michael’s spirit left behind him when he died. He left stars behind, stars that I watch on my hard nights alone. And these flowers, these precious flowers, have made the unbearable, bearable. I am crying again, but now I am crying because there is such love in this world. There is kindness, and thoughtfulness, and remembrance. And there is the love that continuously streams into this world, everywhere I look, from every direction, the love that animates all of life.

Today I gaze at these star flowers with a bit of melancholy, a little sadness, a touch of “tristesse” as the French say. It’s a word I’ve always loved. It’s the sorrows of life, the ones we can all expect, the wry and wistful knowing that this is just how it is. It’s not bad or wrong, and it doesn’t need to be fixed. Not in any way.

So, let us celebrate even this, even death and loss. For it is this that absolutely requires our attention and our celebration. It is this that gives our lives meaning. “C’est la vie,” say the French. It is just life.

 

Letting Go

The disaster drives me some days. I can feel its sharp bite on my heels and I want to do something, anything. Something to make the pain less intense, less pressing, less overwhelming.

 

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A minuscule sampling of the stuff in Michael’s study.

June 8, 2018

There’s a kind of desperation in me some days, a desperation to be done with this pain, this horrible and unimaginable emptiness of loss. Michael has been dead for 44 days now, and I count the days wishing they would move more quickly, wishing that this pain would stop. It’s a far worse grief than when Michael was still alive though at the time I didn’t know it could be any worse. But it is.

A friend of mine likens this loss to an earthquake, another calls it a tsunami, and I read an account that calls it a tornado. These feel right to me. All are natural disasters. And that is exactly what death is – a natural disaster – one that literally brings us to our knees.

The disaster drives me today. I can feel its sharp bite on my heels and I want to do something, anything. Something to make the pain less intense, less pressing, less overwhelming.

I go to the jewelry store to get my wedding ring re-sized so that it will fit on my little finger. It’s the heart meridian finger in Chinese medicine and it seems appropriate. A place to put the symbol of our love — Heart fire.

As I’m speaking with the woman behind the counter she says that maybe I’d just like to buy a smaller ring. I say that I can’t, that this is my wedding ring and I begin to cry. I didn’t expect to cry here today. I thought I was doing ok, and now I am crying in a store in front of a complete stranger. Thankfully, she is calm and kind and offers exactly the right kind of compassion in this moment. I put my re-sized ring on and immediately feel that it is heavy and awkward there. The woman notices and says, “Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.”

Then there are the days when I’m fine. I mean that. I’m just fine. Or not whole days really, but hours of being truly involved with life’s swift flow, enjoying the rush of people and experience, the quiet eddies, the deep pools of contemplation and relief.

But the desperation is what I’m working with today. I can meditate, but just barely. I can do yoga, I can walk, I can read a bit, and still the desperation for this grief to move on, for things to change, is there. It is asking me to let go.

But the truth is, there’s nothing I can do. The only thing that really works is to sit with it. To allow its sharp teeth to bite my heart, to let it bleed once again, to cry the red and blue tears of deep grief.

In my desperation I’ve been cleaning out Michael’s stuff, trying to make this space my own, hoping that as I do so, I will begin to move into this new life more fully, more peacefully. Yet there’s so much stuff that it’s taking far longer than I thought it would. How can that be true? I lived with this man for so many years and yet I am finding more “stuff” than I ever knew about.

My dear sister volunteers to help me move his things out, thank god, because I truly can’t imagine facing this alone. I have tried. I walk into his study, look around, move a few papers, and walk back out again. It is simply too much.

I’ve discovered that Michael was a pack rat! Far worse than I realized – a real pack rat, a hoarder of small things, useless things, funny things. For instance, in his study we found over 300 blank CDs. 300! Package after package. Clearly, he’d thought that he was going to make lots of recordings. In his struggle to find a purpose, he thought he would create meditation CDs. It’s a grand and completely outdated idea but here I am, stuck with 300 CDs and it feels horribly wasteful just to throw them out. Yet, I literally have no use for them. None. I keep them for now, waiting for my brother who says he “knows a guy” who will use them.

In the bathroom closet I find 22 boxes of band aids. Admittedly, Michael was bleeding easily and often. Brushing up against even tiny protuberances led to abrasions that might not heal for weeks, and band aids and gauze and tape were all needed. But there are 22 boxes of band aids for me to deal with. Many are opened but still full, and many aren’t even opened.

I can only imagine what he must have been feeling. His anxiety over bleeding must have caused him to buy band aids whenever he went to the store. Just one more box. In case. Simply forgetting that there are already many boxes at home. So, he’d use the latest box once or twice, push it back into the chaos of his bathroom closet, and buy another box. I take a huge bag of supplies to the Free Medical Clinic.

Then I find, buried in a file cabinet, every card I’d ever made for him. Years and years of homemade cards, some better than others, but each made with love, a way to express my feelings for him. I look through them and find birthdays, and anniversaries, and solstices. I cry when I find them for they were clearly precious to him. And then I realize that I doubt he ever got around to looking at them again. There’s so much stuff here that all they could be is another thing he is hoarding. And yet, and yet, there was such love between us.

Finally, after many days, his study is beginning to feel clear — except for the books! There are still many books, some to sell, some to give away, some to keep. It’s arduous going through them and it’s arduous letting them go. For I know he loved his books.

There are books on languages – Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Spanish, German, Latin, and even Esperanto. He spoke all of these a little bit, and he knew German and Latin really well.

There are many books on Western mysticism and magic, books on Kabbalah and tarot, books on ancient and hidden archeology, books on Chinese medicine and herbs, books on energy healing, books on astrology, books on music, and more books and books and books. There are also 10 decks of tarot cards. 10 decks!

It feels almost sacrilegious to be going through his books, his things, in this way. He treasured them, and for him, they held the knowledge he loved and acquired through decades of devoted study and learning.

And yet, I also know that I am not going to invest in several new areas of learning. I’m not going to study Hinduism or Vedic astrology or Chinese medicine any more deeply than I already have. These are not my books. And though I see their value, I can’t imagine lugging them around for the rest of my life.

For that is what I’m looking at now – the rest of my life. Michael has been dead for 44 days, and I’m looking at the rest of my life. I’m still counting the days, and now, the weeks, and I find that this is common for those who have lost a loved one. We count the days without them. The inexorable time slipping away between us, the subtle shiftings into the past tense, the memories becoming more distant and more abstract. I’m looking forward to a time when I can count the months rather than the weeks, and maybe someday, count the years rather than the months.

But there is also the sense of not wanting to let go, not wanting the memories to become abstract and distant. There’s a sense of scrambling to keep him close, to hold him in some secret way, to talk about him, to write these words. There’s a desire to keep his things, his messy things, to create a mausoleum of Michael. As a person who values order and calm, I cannot keep these messy things, these things that are not mine, these things that no longer belong. Slowly and surely, I am losing him and there’s no way to keep him close. Things are changing and there’s no going back.

I wait for the next earthquake with trepidation, wishing this awful shaking would be over, but knowing it is not. I cannot  prepare for them. There’s no safe place to ride out this kind of disaster.

My ground has been shaken and it will shake again — maybe in a store, maybe with a friend, maybe sitting alone at night watching a sentimental movie. I will be shaken again in the inevitable grief and loneliness of profound loss. And maybe it’s the shaking that actually does it — that makes me tremble, that throws me to my knees, that allows me to realize that this earth is not the place to put my faith. Maybe the shaking is finally deep enough that it allows me to let go.

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.