The Long Goodbye

I must move on with my life. I don’t know how to accept this. Not really. I’ve got the words, the concept, and even the feeling sometimes. But the level of true and complete acceptance of his loss continues to elude me.

Screen Shot 2019-04-26 at 7.27.42 AM

 

April 25, 2019

Today is the first anniversary of Michael’s death. I awakened earlier than I wanted, but I’ve become used to this in the past three years of his dying and death. I find a dense fog outside my window in this near dawn light and I wonder if it will rain, for I intend to do a ritual outside in his honor.

It was Michael’s birthday five days ago, and now it is his death day. I guess that it’s good that these events are coming so close together. I’ve taken most of the week off so that I can move into the deeper psychological and spiritual work of this time.

On his birthday, I got a small pastry, put a candle in it, picked some daffodils, pulled a tarot card, and sang Happy Birthday. I started crying in the middle of the song because it felt so empty to be singing to the remnants of what remains of his earthly life, to be singing into the hollowness of life without him.

As I was shuffling the deck of 78 tarot cards, I kept asking for one card, just one, that would tell me what I need to know about Michael. I was thinking that maybe The Star card would show up, for he has communicated with me and others through the stars. But the card that came was Death. I almost laughed when it turned over, and I almost cried. Of course! He is dead and my task is to accept this.

This made me realize that there’s a new level of acceptance that is attempting to come in, that needs to come in. And it’s all about letting go of the various ways in which I’ve tried to keep Michael alive. I need to finally accept that no amount of crying, or praying, or wishing, or remembering, or meditating, or fantasizing, or writing, in short — nothing, will bring Michael back to me. I need to understand this fully and unequivocally. For I believe that this is the level of acceptance that will begin to bring relief to this endless grief.

I have to confess that I’ve been playing Ghost with Michael for this past year. He would be smiling about my “playing ghost” with him for we had joked about it as he was dying, and he vowed he would play it with me.

You may remember the 1990 movie starring Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore in which Patrick’s character is killed and then comes back as a ghost to protect his lover, Demi. The scene that stands out in my mind is the one in which Demi is creating a clay pot and Patrick’s ghostly form sits behind her, holding her, while she makes her art.

I’ve been doing my own version of this. I’ve been feeling Michael holding my hand for many months now. I ask for him to hold my hand, and I feel a very subtle sense of his hand on mine – warm and comforting. Sometimes I feel him holding my hand even when I haven’t asked. I feel him in my office too, the office I shared with him. And I often feel him when I meditate. I don’t know if it’s really him, but it doesn’t matter. It’s something that’s been happening and I have wanted it to happen.

At this one-year anniversary of his death, I’m realizing that at least for now, I need to let this go. I need to stop playing ghost with him. It keeps him too alive in my mind, and it keeps me from moving forward. And the point, the very necessary and painful point, is that he is dead and gone.

But it’s hard to let go of our loved ones, and the efforts toward communication with our dead feel important. It seems natural that we would strive to continue our connection to them. The bonds of love are so potent and profound, and they weave themselves into our  very Being in unknowable and inextricable ways.

So, there is something about fully accepting that Michael is gone and at the same time finding myself at a vibrational level that can occasionally and consciously commune with whatever remains of his spirit in this realm. But this communion needs to change in some indefinable way. I need to accept that no matter how potent the connection may be, I must move on with my life. It is too lonely and too empty to continue to reach back into our life together in this way. It is too sad to sing Happy Birthday to an empty chair. He is gone. And I remain.

And yet, I don’t know how to accept this. Not really. I’ve got the words, the concept, and even the feeling sometimes. But the level of true and complete acceptance of his loss continues to elude me.

Then I realize that I don’t have to know how to accept this, that in fact, I may not be able to know. Like so many things, I can’t figure this out. No amount of time in my head is going to make this clearer or easier. In fact, just the opposite. Once again, it comes down to trusting the very nature of life. To trusting that life will show me exactly what I need to learn. It comes down to being on my knees again, to asking for help and guidance, and to being humble enough to receive it. I have been on my knees so often in these past several years, and yet, here I am again. It seems to be the only place from which I can begin to know the deeper wisdom.

I go out to the garden where Michael’s ashes are buried, and I clear the space around them. The marker stones from last year have been moved by the harsh winter and I am on my knees as I place them once again in a circle. The giant hosta in the center is just beginning to show its spring growth of stalks and leaves. Among the stones are citrine, and hematite, and quartz, and tiger’s eye. There is aventurine and several pieces of lapis, for that is the stone of Medicine Buddha, and Michael had many of them. There is granite and a mysterious translucent green octahedron. There is obsidian and an unknown stone of orange and black. And there is his pocket Buddha. I know I will take these with me wherever I move for the rest of my life. And I will take the small urn of his remaining ashes.

It is so peaceful here today and I’m surprised to find that I am not crying. Instead I am washed in gratitude and love and the fullness of life.

Now I prepare a ritual by creating a sacred circle with the directions and the archangels and the powers they represent. I light a candle that will burn for 24 hours. It is a Yahrzeit candle from the Jewish tradition for remembering those who are gone, and it is lit on the one year anniversary of their passing. My intention is for the deepest honoring possible. And then, finally, it is about letting Michael go, or at least letting him go a little bit more.

For this is the long goodbye. This year of mourning is ending, and though I know my grief doesn’t end now, this is a signpost of some kind. I’ve made it through this terrible ordeal of Michael’s dying and death, and now it’s time to re-enter the flow of life, it’s time to begin to heal.

Even writing these words brings a fresh round of sorrow. But this is the task and I welcome its completion.

I say these words out loud to Michael and to the Universe as I kneel in the garden. “I fully accept that you are dead and gone. I let go of our life together with immense love and gratitude. Thank you, my love. I ask for help in letting go and moving forward into life’s flow. Help me. Please help me to let go of you, as I ask you to let go of me. Goodbye, my love. I will miss you forever in this life.” Now I cry wholeheartedly, every bit of me is committed to this moment, and once again, I water his resting place with my tears. I close the circle in reverence and silence.

I’m hoping that something is shifting. Today, I am trusting the process, the larger Source. It feels a bit like falling, but I’m falling softly, falling gently into the great mystery. And really, it is so soft that it feels like being held. My heart is being held.

 

 

Resting In Peace

Though I said all along that telling the truth, that being the emotional truth, was the most important part of Michael’s illness for me, I feel guilty that these were my feelings.

Pacific

October 8, 2018

My son, Darby, and I take a trip to the Pacific ocean, the ocean of peace. Our intention is to release the last of Michael’s ashes into this great sea, to forever blend the molecules of his Being into the vast and sacred water.

I bury some of his ashes in the Appalachians on the new moon in August. He loved those mountains, as did I, and I found a huge, ancient oak for the resting spot. In September, under the full moon, I bury most of his ashes in our garden along with several small mementos of his life. Now it is the new moon in October and I am with my son who loved Michael as a father, loved him in his own way. It is right that we are doing this together.

We find a perfect beach — almost no one around, tide pools, clean water, good waves. I know what I want to say, and I wade into the shallow surf until I feel I am standing exactly where I need to stand, water washing over my ankles, beautiful stones at my feet in the sand. With three handfuls of ashes I thank Michael over and over again for leaving me so well.

“Michael, thank you for leaving me physically safe and comfortable in my beautiful home.

Michael, thank you for giving me emotional sustenance, for giving me confidence, for giving me what I need to move forward, for believing in me.

Michael, thank you for supporting my psyche and my thoughts, for listening to my truth even when the words were hard to hear.

Michael, thank you for demonstrating the power of meditation to calm the mind and grow the soul. Thank you for teaching me to trust my spirit every single day.

Michael, thank you for dying when you did – leaving me enough time to get used to your going, and not so much time that I was unable to function.

Michael, thank you for loving me as I loved you.”

I cry throughout, my salty tears blending with the salty water. And now it is Darby’s turn. He has witnessed my ritual, and he does his own honoring with the ashes that are left. He is silent, though there are tears in his eyes as the last of Michael’s ashes are released to the sea.

On the way back from the ocean I find myself in a common argument with Darby, arguing that he needs to give me credit for hanging in there with Michael, for not leaving. I had told Darby of my thoughts about leaving Michael over a year ago. But Darby’s belief is that there is no real choice — you stay with your loved one when they are dying, even if the marriage has become relatively empty, has become friendship, has become physical caregiving, and emotional toll-taking. You simply stay!

I say that Michael understood the toll his illness was taking on me. In fact, Michael was the one who first brought up the idea of me leaving. “Babe, if you need to leave, if you just can’t do this, I understand. If you need to leave, then you should go.”

He said this early on in the process, and I knew he meant it. I was free to leave if I wanted to, but of course I couldn’t imagine doing such a thing at that time. And even then, I knew that we had both created and agreed to the situation, that we were both being tested in exactly the way we needed testing, and I stayed.

But I argue with Darby that there is a choice all along. That each day is a choice, that each act of giving care is a choice, that each moment is a choice that speaks to one’s ability to remain stable and kind while walking through hell.

Though my son seems to recognize the choice, he doesn’t really see it. How can he? He has never had to do anything like this.

He says he would do the “right thing.” For him, there is only one path, and it is the path of staying the course. I say that there are many who do not make this choice. Or that if they choose to stay, they stay with resentment, denial, anger and guilt. I insist that he give me credit for the choices that I made, and finally, reluctantly, he does.

But I can feel the reluctance and I come back to it. He says, “Mom, this is your issue. You keep bringing it up!”

And at that blessed moment, I see it all. For a moment, I see the entire crucible of my life with Michael. All the patterns, all the pain and joy and sorrow, all the ways in which I have tied myself into knots over his dying and death. And in that moment, that elusive clarity, I say, “I think I need to give myself credit.”

Now I am quiet, I take a deep breath, and I let this sink in. I’ve been feeling guilty. My child self has been back in her old mind-set, the one that says no matter what she does, it isn’t enough. It is never enough. And the cost of never being good enough is guilt. For almost six months now, ever since Michael died, I’ve been feeling this niggling and obscure sense of wrongness playing in the background, this sense that I didn’t do enough, or that I said too much.

I feel the horror of telling Michael that I am so unhappy that I have thought about living elsewhere, and now it really hits me. I thought it, and finally, as an act of desperation, I said it! I felt I was drowning, that my spirit was dying, that I couldn’t sustain our situation, and I told him. A crashing sense of regret and sorrow overwhelms me for a moment. How could I have said these things to this good man? To this great soul? How could I tell my dying friend that I was at a point in which I wanted to leave?

But then I know that if I hadn’t told this truth, if we hadn’t had the kind of relationship that would allow this level of truth between us, my soul would have shrunk inside of me and my heart would have closed. I would have stayed, but I would have stayed with a frozen heart.

It all becomes clear now. I’ve been feeling guilty and angry at myself for telling the truth! And feeling angry at Michael for putting us in this terrible and inescapable hell in which the truth I have to tell is painful and deep. I am angry that I dared to speak what my heart simply had to say.

Though I said all along that telling the truth, that being the emotional truth, was the most important part of Michael’s illness for me, I feel guilty that these were my feelings. But then I know that the only way I could survive his dying was to be honest about its effects on me and on us.

I think he knew this. I believe he understood this. I know he loved me, and to love me inevitably means being able to stand in whatever truth I glean and share from this sometimes difficult life.

I flash back again to his last moments on this earth, to his desperate struggle for breath, to his eyes rolling up in his head, to his last words: “love…you….” He died so well. He died with love in his heart and soul, and I was blessed enough to witness this love and feel it in myself. I am consoled by this.

For the first time since his death, I know that my guilt is simply my guilt. It wasn’t what Michael felt. It wasn’t what he took with him. He left this earth in love. And he wanted me to be happy. He said it many times, “I want you to be happy when I’m gone.”

And now, I begin to clearly allow this love to be what I am left with as well. There are tears rolling down my face as I feel into this truth. After almost three years, I finally let myself rest in peace.

 

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 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.

Screen Shot 2018-08-19 at 12.44.06 PM

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 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.

Screen Shot 2018-07-14 at 9.24.29 AM

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.

flowers

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.

 

IMG_4298-2

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.