Coming to Terms

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

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Feb 11, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anger and Bliss

The transformation of each of us takes place at the center, where the suffering is the most intense.

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01/21/2018

Last week we received Michael’s new numbers from the hospital, the numbers that speak to us of progress or lack of progress with his disease. The numbers still aren’t good.

As I take in this new information the usual feelings overwhelm me. I seem to have to work through the same cacophony every time: shock, frustration, resignation, sorrow, and finally, acceptance. But this week is different. This week I feel anger sneaking its snarly little head into the mix, stuck in the crevice between resignation and sorrow. And though anger has been here before, this is an onslaught and it stays with me for several days.

Along with Michael’s quality of life, my life quality has also diminished considerably and I begin to justify my angry stance. “I’m sick of this life we have. I feel like a prisoner. How much longer is this going to go on? What’s he hanging on to? Why can’t he let go? Why can’t he die?” ‘Prisoner’ and ‘die’ are the words that stand out to me and I hear how angry and resentful I am. These are true feelings, but these are not the beautiful feelings. This is how ugly it can get inside a human mind.

After a few days I find my better self and I speak gently with Michael about my anger. In turn, he shares his own version of the darkness, “It’s not fair that I got this illness! It’s taking everything from me. My life has been destroyed. I can’t whistle, I can’t walk the way I used to, my ability to pursue my life has been taken away. My hands are clumsy and eating is a problem. Why don’t I just die? It would be better for everyone if I just died.”

As he speaks I realize that these stories of victimization are understandable and normal. But they are not pretty, and certainly not the way either one of us wants to feel. It is the mind’s way of coping with events that are just too hard and too brutal to grasp and our minds make up all kinds of stories to explain the pain we are in. It takes real effort to witness this mind game and to realize that it doesn’t need to be believed. We are not our thoughts!

To work through the anger and the stories, I have to muster the courage and humility to speak it to Michael. Thankfully, he can hear me. We are good partners, and I am grateful for the gentle ways in which we are treating each other. I’m not saying we haven’t always been kind and respectful, because we have. But it is deeper now because there’s more at stake. We both know this and we both work at this.

As soon as I hear the story I’m telling myself, and once I say it out loud, I realize again that I’m not a victim here. I’m exactly where I should be, and exactly where I’m supposed to be. For what good does it do to believe otherwise?

For instance, if I’m not exactly where I’m supposed to be, then where am I? Where I’m not supposed to be? How can that even be possible? If I’m here, then I’m supposed to be here. It’s just a rule of reality.

Of course that doesn’t mean that I don’t strive toward the Good, strive toward growth and something better, for that striving is infinite and ongoing. But to recognize the Good, it feels to me that first we need to recognize exactly where we are so that we can know in which direction to point ourselves.

At a spiritual level, to find the Good, the only way I can make sense of it is to recognize that every element of reality, in any situation, is here for my potential growth. And I mean every bit of it – including the mean thoughts and feelings I have about my sick husband. If I don’t admit to these feelings, they grow and fester in the dark.

Every moment of this experience is here to show us to ourselves — all the pettiness and compassion and sorrow and love. And maybe the really hard stuff is the most important because not only are the consequences so dire, but the potential for growth is so high! For this is the suffering that most captures our attention.

The great psychologist, Jordan Peterson, talks about the symbolism of the Cross and the Labyrinth. In both of these symbols we travel from the outside toward the center. Peterson says that to understand these symbols, we have to realize that the transformation of each of us takes place at the center, where the suffering is the most intense. In other words, the greater the suffering, the greater the potential for transformation. I see that through this suffering comes the possibility to awaken wisdom and a kind of grace.

The truly remarkable thing to me is that neither one of us has actually “lost it.” Neither one of us has freaked out to the point of losing our integrity or our center. We are not filled with suffering. We recognize it, but it doesn’t own us, and it feels like it’s all just a matter of perspective. We can talk about our anger, a potentially dangerous topic, and we can do it with calm and decency and respect.

The further into the chaos and pain of illness we dive, and the more suffering we endure, the more the potential for transformation shows itself. I see that my anger is an expression of my fear and pain and I can recognize it for what it is — potential for huge growth!

Now, able to be at my best, I forgive myself for my anger. As I do, I see this time as allowing me more clarity than I have ever had, and I literally feel awash in love for myself and others. Similarly, a few nights ago, Michael spent the entire evening in bliss — the entire evening! Both of these experiences feel like a complete miracle to me.

It really is only a matter of perspective, and this level of perspective can be taken by any of us. When we find ourselves suffering, we can dare to face into it, we can dare to know that we are exactly where we are supposed to be, we can dare to be truthful and open. It simply involves taking responsibility for where we find ourselves and for telling the truth. It really is as clear as this.

At this point, Michael knows how I feel, and I know how Michael feels. We know each other’s myriad thoughts and feelings around death and dying. I sense that now anger may be more a part of the mix than it used to be. But even if it is, now I know its face and I’ve heard its speech. It will catch my attention sooner if it comes again. And if it comes,  I know everything is on the table between us, and I can continue to speak what needs to be spoken. What a relief! I have never had the opportunity to be this honest and free before, and I think Michael feels the same.

So weirdly, though grief is in the background of every day, this isn’t just some difficult time in our lives. It is also a time when waves of joy dance within us, when things are more important, when truth is paramount, and when consciousness allows us to rise above these horrors and see them for the human comedy that they truly are.  It is a time for loving each other in a deeper, different way.

For any of us, learning how to be with our suffering is one of the greatest gifts of any crisis. In it, there is real potential for deep recognition of the patterns that have bound us. Today I see that Michael and I are receiving a tremendous opportunity. I realize we are moving more consciously into our suffering and into our hearts. I feel us standing together, witnessing in awe, the huge blessings and mysteries that unfold around death.

Growing Up

Often we are rewarded in this society for giving ourselves up for others. And though this is the partial essence of loving thy neighbor as thyself, it can also turn into a terrible and twisted version of martyrdom.

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“When we tell the truth, we create goodness.” – Jordan Peterson

Lately I’m realizing that Michael’s illness has pushed both of us in ways we would never have otherwise been pushed. Both of us are in some way, finally growing up, finally being the adults we were always meant to be.

In the past week we are both taking care of ourselves pretty well. Michael’s blood sugar coming under control has really helped the situation. He’d been feeling really low, physically exhausted, and his mental attitude had started to decline. He was talking more about dying, and I was thinking about him dying more often.

Once we found out that his chemo drugs had made him diabetic, things started to improve. He’s taking blood sugar medication and watching his diet and he’s feeling much better. Regardless, it was certainly a lesson in how things could be, how the decline into death might take place. Since he is better I can write about it again. At the time, I truly didn’t have the words.

Now that life is more stable, it’s made me think again about Ken Wilber’s recipe for true adulthood. He exhorts us to do four things: Grow Up, Clean Up, Wake Up, and Show Up. It’s a terrific shorthand for a way to think about one’s own level of maturity.

Growing Up is about becoming someone who takes responsibility, who can be counted on, who tells the truth, and who honors their word. It’s simple to write these words, but this is a huge leap in consciousness! It requires the discipline of pointing one’s self toward the good, over and over again. It requires telling the truth as best we can. When we lie to ourselves or others, it makes us weak. And I mean that literally — it makes us fall out of alignment and it weakens our spirits.

To Wake Up is the act of realizing the true nature of one’s essential being. These easy words belie the mountain of thoughts and efforts that lead to this state, but both Michael and I have awakened to some extent. I can feel my own need to continue to grow and stabilize my level of awareness, and Michael is doing the same. Regardless, we are on the path of awakening and we know it.

Showing Up is simple really – it’s the recognition of what is needed by the world and taking the action to do whatever one can to fulfill it. What is needed is usually whatever is right in front of us. It is what is showing up in the present moment that needs our clear attention, and then doing what the world is asking of us in that moment. This can be simple or complicated but it is always about taking an action that leads toward the greater good.

But Cleaning Up – oh my – it’s a long and arduous process of encountering the Shadow parts of ourselves. It is also infinite because the dark unprocessed parts of ourselves are always opening beneath us, beneath our consciousness, always becoming. They show themselves in the dreams, the trances, the unformed chaos beneath our psyches. The great psychologist Carl Jung believed that these shadow parts are the literal key to our vitality and life force, and they are usually deeply hidden from us.

The Shadow is made up of all the parts of us we don’t want to see – the anger, the resentments, the judgments, the fears – all of this never goes away!  And though the Shadow also holds immense creative powers, these are hidden in the depths of our psyches until we have the courage to face into the darkness we are blocking. We can’t escape our Shadows! We can’t “make” them go away. And the more we try, the larger they become.

For what heals the Shadow, what “cleans” it, isn’t an effort to make it go away. Rather it is the willing acceptance and integration of our darkest impulses, our humanness, and our flaws. In other words, we work toward the loving acceptance of who we are in all of our tragedy, our selfishness, our vulnerability, and our fear.

I find that each of us, in our own way is working on these four dimensions of true adulthood. But it’s the Shadow, always the Shadow, the keeps me up at night.

Lately I’ve been seeing our cultural Shadow in the stories of caregiving that I hear around me and I’ve been noticing that the line between the martyr and the saint is a huge ongoing question for me.

Often we are rewarded in this society for giving ourselves up for others. And though this is the partial essence of loving thy neighbor as thyself, it can also turn into a terrible and twisted version of martyrdom. For the saint is walking a path that sacrifices the self in the name of a higher calling while the martyr may be walking the exact same path but at the cost of their own life force and their very soul.

I’ve been hearing about people who have completely put their lives on hold for their sick partner for years and years at a time. These people are held up as examples of how to be a good caregiver in spite of the fact that their own sacred life has been stymied and reduced. I hear these stories and I find my shadowy anger rising within me. “My life is important too!” it shouts at me.

I’ve also heard the stories of those who leave their ailing partner because they can’t deal with the suffering, and these stories are held up as morality lessons, a lesson in how not to be. My Shadow insinuates itself here with visions of escape and fantasies of life alone which immediately leads to feelings of guilt and shame.

Occasionally there are stories of caregivers who have somehow managed to find the middle path – to care for their loved one and to care for themselves but these stories aren’t as common or as vivid. It is the extremes of the caregiving stories that we hear most often. This is the hardest wrestling match, this middle path. It is the one that demands my firm commitment to goodness toward myself and toward Michael, even when this goodness may lead in opposite directions.

Regardless, these stories raise many questions: Have I been kind enough to my husband? Have I been kind enough to myself? Do I need to speak more truth to him? Speak less? Do more? Surely not. Surely? Could I be more loving toward him? Toward myself?

These are not easy questions and there’s no single right answer. In any relationship, whether in sickness or in health, these questions arise — questions of how much to give to another and how much to give to one’s self. Questions of loyalty and care, and just as much, questions of obligation and responsibility.

I’m in a mighty wrestling match with these questions right now, and though I continue to be grown up, continue to show up, and continue to try to find the highest good, the Shadow arises taking me into my most difficult questions about myself and my motives. I’m finding that obligation, loyalty, and self-love often define a very narrow line to walk — the proverbial razor’s edge.

In an effort to quell the Shadow, I tell Michael that I’m trying something new. Today I say that I will assume he is fine unless he tells me differently. He is relieved when I say this. “Well, great!” he says. “It’s about time.” He has witnessed my worry and what he must see as over-protection and he’s glad that I’m giving him more space.

Then I add, “I mean that at every level – physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. I expect that you will tell me if something is wrong. Otherwise I will assume that everything is ok.” Again he agrees and he seems to understand.

Somehow I feel a new sense of freedom in this! I won’t be mentally chasing Michael to find out how he is. I won’t be constantly wondering and worrying over his situation, or at least I hope I won’t. He will simply tell me. And if this is true, it will be a different way for us to relate to this illness of his – two independent adults, awake and caring companions, openly sharing their very different journeys with honesty and love.

Soul Contract

Our contracts aren’t meant to keep us safe and secure. They are meant to constantly throw us out onto the ragged edge of growth and change.

 

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I’ve been thinking about soul contracts lately. I look at soul contracts as agreements our souls make in order to grow in this lifetime. In it the soul agrees to its karmic lessons, experiences, and circumstances for its best chance at advancement of consciousness.

I’m seeing that Michael and I have made quite a contract together. Of course I can only see this contract in retrospect, and god knows, there may be more to come.

But here’s what I know so far: Clearly Michael and I were to meet and help each other out of marriages that were not happy for either of us. Clearly, we were to marry and raise three children. Clearly, we were to create a truly unique healing center together. Clearly, I was to have a potentially fatal disease from which I was to recover. Clearly, he was to care for me during this time, and then for some time after. Clearly, we were to encounter experiences that would lead both of us more deeply into spirit and higher consciousness. Clearly, once Michael became enlightened he was to be diagnosed with a mortal illness. And now clearly, I am to take care of him until he dies.

What a contract! There’s so much suffering within it, and so much potential for growth and love.

Part of what I’ve been doing is watching how this contract is unfolding and what my grief is teaching me over these long fifteen months.

First, grief comes in waves of watery energy. Anyone who has ever experienced a big loss knows this. Sometimes it comes gently, a soft rain of sadness, a pulling down but not under. Sometimes, unexpected, unplanned, and completely uncontrollable waves of grief spiral through me and suddenly I find myself lost in a storm of sorrowful realizations. Other times grief is so potent that only wracking sobs and an inchoate sense of falling are possible. These are the times in which I wonder if I will be pulled under to drown in a pain that is inconsolable and too huge to hold. But I do not drown and I am learning to hold.

Second, rather than stages of grief, it feels like layers of grief that reveal a new look into the depths of sorrow, despair, and fear. Sometimes I still find myself at the initial layer of shocked incomprehension. Other times I’ve plunged so deeply into sorrow that I’ve found a kind of peace. And then I can come all the way back up to the layer of denial and confusion.

I’ve been hoping to find the intersection of sorrow and peace in all of this for I know this search is part of my soul’s contract, part of my necessary growth. I’ve found that it does exist but I need to cry to find it. Once I’ve opened my heart to myself, then tears are followed by peace and by a deeper knowing of the nature of suffering and true compassion. But I must open my heart to myself for this to happen.

Lately I’ve realized that in spite of thinking that I was handling grief about as well as anyone can, what I was actually doing early on was protecting myself with fantasy and a kind of mean-eyed clarity. Fantasies of what my future would be like began to take up a fair amount of my mind-time. How old will I be when Michael dies? How will I want to be living my life? Where will I want to live? Will I get married again? What kind of man will I be looking for?

At the same time, thoughts about our marriage and the holes in our relationship became more prominent. And like all marriages, ours is not perfect. There are co-dependencies that have developed that don’t feel healthy and that have made me question this relationship on and off for a number of years. I spent months inwardly chasing fantasies while looking for some kind of security in an inherently insecure situation.

The hell of it is that we all have these codependent relationships, at least until we really grow up. Not all of them are unhealthy, of course, and any long term relationship will have worked out various methods of getting needs met – rituals and patterns that can be life-sustaining or life-denying. At some point, and maybe too often, we end up needing something from someone we love to the point of compromising ourselves in order to get it.

This is what it feels like to me. Soon, the compromises begin to erode one’s self-reliance and one’s self-respect, and eventually, one’s essence. And even when the erosion is very subtle, it’s still part of the scene.

For instance, very unconsciously I remained chronically fatigued for years so that Michael would take care of me. In turn he got to feel secure because I needed him so much. Please hear that I am not blaming him for this in the least! This pattern plays way back into my childhood, and even though I know and understand this pattern, I couldn’t stop feeling physically worn out.

So interestingly, when Michael became truly ill, I began to be truly well. I’ve been struck by this on many occasions, and I know other people have too. I still have many of the symptoms I had before, I’m still sensitive in ways I sometimes wish I wasn’t, I’m still tired sometimes, but I don’t feel sick any more! And weirdly enough, our pattern was so well entrenched that even with knowing every in and out of it, every devious little twist and turn of it, we were powerless to stop it until Michael got sick. It took something this dire to shake us out of a pattern that wasn’t nourishing either of us!

Michael also knows about this pattern, of course, because it’s been a running commentary between us over the years – me bringing it up and him inwardly groaning while outwardly taking it on. And now we both see the changes that have been wrought in these past fifteen months. Mostly, we aren’t stuck in the old ways anymore – he knows I love him for things deeper than his care of me. And I know that I can take care of myself.

Of course, there’s been a high cost for this. From time to time, I’m overwhelmed with grief and responsibility, and Michael is coping with debilitating illness and chemotherapy side effects. We’re both looking at tremendous losses but of very different sorts. What a price to pay for freedom. What a contract!

But ultimately, the greatest freedom I’ve found is that grief isn’t anything to fear. It’s harsh and sad and sometimes overwhelmingly empty. But the thing that has to be accepted with grief is that there is no protection! There is no safety in this physical life except the full acceptance of what it really is. That’s it. Everyone you love will either leave you or you will leave them. There’s no way around it.

Our contracts aren’t meant to keep us safe and secure. They are meant to constantly throw us out onto the ragged edge of growth and change. There is nothing to hold on to here but love.

And though I still feel fear, I know it is an illusion. I can’t hide in fantasies about the future or resentments about the past. To really love, I have to risk everything and at last come to peace with this complete lack of safety. This means opening my heart with absolute certainty that it’s going to be broken. Now I truly know that I am staring death in the face, and that I am going to lose.

If I really accept this, really surrender to this ongoing practice, then I do find peace or rather, peace finds me – and that is the other wisdom that has come. I can chase peace with a desperate determination but I won’t find it by chasing it. It simply arises in a moment of grace and then there it is.

For that is what is happening now. Michael and I have found a new peace together. It’s not romantic or sexual at all – that has been stripped away. Instead, we’re often just sitting together, talking, and holding hands. It’s the way our soul contract currently expresses itself and we both know that we came here to live it out. It is full of goodness and it is asking us to be our best selves. We try to live up to it.

So what is left between us? It is phenomenal respect, friendship, and compassion for our beingness, for what we’ve been and what we are, and for what we may become. What is left is the essence of love. Finally, we have reached a simple purity of goodness – the goodness of being able to sit in deep comfort, to hold hands in the quiet darkness, to speak softly of spirit in its many guises, and then, to go gently into that good night.

A Testament To Michael

It is a faith he has practiced his entire adult life and now it is here to be used in the biggest way possible.

Michael

September 9, 2017

Today I speak of Michael and his journey through illness.

Michael is going through hell. But you wouldn’t know it unless all you do is look at him. Certainly his body has changed immensely, but that is part of serious illness. It is his Spirit that remains remarkably pure.

Michael is going through hell. But each new wrinkle in this almost impossible process is met with equanimity and calm. Certainly, there are physical reactions to his plight. These are inevitable. But they rise and they fall away. He notes them, he mentions them, and then he leaps to the spiritual understanding that allows him to meet these gross indignities with both genuine acceptance and real presence.

Michael is going through hell. But his courage is intact. This is a trick worth noting! To be told that your “numbers” aren’t looking as good as they should, to take that information in fully and without resistance, and to accept that this is the reality, is a huge act of spiritual faith. It is a faith he has practiced his entire adult life and now it is here to be used in the biggest way possible.

And even though Michael is going through hell, he remains mostly steadfast in his belief in his eventual recovery. Of course there are times of doubt, times of trial, times of despair. It would be some kind of bizarre denial if there were not. But in spite of this, he remains focused on a good outcome. He’s looking forward to one day being off of chemotherapy and able to use whatever alternative therapies are available to him. In other words, he has hope.

From time to time he apologizes to me for having brought this sickness into our lives. “I’m sorry,” he says, “I’m sorry I brought this to us.” I say, “I’m sorry too. It’s been hard.” And then we go through the spiritual song and dance we’ve developed around his illness — each of us expressing that we know we are both players in this drama, that we’ve both chosen to be here to learn the lessons, that most of the time we’re learning something so deep we can’t even begin to name it.

Michael’s path to this level of understanding has come through Wisdom. He has studied esoteric traditions his whole life. He knows more about the arcane spiritual mysteries of almost every culture than anyone else I’ve met. And when he studies, he studies deeply.

He knows The Tree of Life, the Tarot, Builders of the Adytum, Rosicrucianism, Shiatsu, Chinese Medicine, Catholicism, the Bible, Reiki, Chakras, Remote Viewing, Astral Travel, Buddhism, Numerology, Astrology, Hidden Archeology, and much more. He can integrate information from a vast array of sources and bring it together in a way that is utterly unusual and genuinely deepening. And he believes in magic.

Michael used to be a master healer combining psychology and alternative medicine in a manner both unique and effective. He was also a highly unusual therapist with more than a little iconoclasm and irony thrown into the mix. At one point in his career he wrote psychological evaluations using numerology along with an array of other tests. They were seen as being “the most accurate personality assessments” that others had ever read. He has been known to tell clients that they “need to cut that shit out,” and amazingly, they have listened! People have literally come to see him from hundreds of miles away, have come to be healed, and have gone away satisfied.

Now this part of him is no longer operating, no longer relevant. Suddenly, and with warnings that went unheeded until they couldn’t be ignored, his Higher Self has chosen a different path.

So how does Michael now spend his days? Sometimes he writes, wanting to transmit spiritual understanding to others. Sometimes he practices his penmanship by copying numerous pages of historical documents using one of his precious ink pens and treasured Japanese inks. Sometimes he catches up on our financial books, a task I’ve managed to joyfully avoid. Sometimes he plays various games on his iPad. Sometimes he’s on Facebook and news channels and is more knowledgeable about what’s happening in the world than most. Sometimes he plays computer scrabble and then routinely beats me and our friend at scrabble on the weekends. Sometimes he bakes gluten-free bread, whirls an oddly-concocted smoothie, and makes apple crisp from our many backyard apples. Sometimes he appreciates the brief moment when the whole kitchen is clean. Sometimes he sits outside in a comfortable chair just watching the world go by.

Once a week, when he’s still high on steroids the day after chemo, he does chores. He goes to the store and the recycling center, gets gas, goes for a longer walk, and graces me with the immense gift of time alone in my own home. This kind of time has been rare! It’s only in the last month that I’ve truly stopped going to his chemotherapy appointments though I still go when we meet with the nurse or the doctor. The rest of the time now, he goes alone, and he actually seems to enjoy this solitude.

Michael meditates often. I suspect he goes to places most of us have never been. His knowledge of The Tree has allowed him a way into the Highest High and the Dazzling Dark. He has pierced the veil and met angels and guides and other archetypal energies on many occasions. He has been immersed in various qualities of light and sound and has been shaken to his core. He has been purified and blessed and he knows it. And finally, he has attained a permanent realization of his essence.

Occasionally, he wonders about what his life is coming to and what his task is now that he’s ill. There’s no definitive answer, of course, but it’s a question that each of us must ask if we are to find the hidden meanings behind the opaque face of physical reality.

Michael is going through hell but he seems to ask these life questions with great courage and grace. Certainly he complains from time to time but mostly he is kind and gentle and quiet.

Michael is going through hell. And still, he loves me as best he can and I return the gift. I have such deep respect for how he is meeting this time, these circumstances, this place in his life.

Michael is going through hell but it is no longer hell that he walks through. It has transformed him and he has transformed it. It is the challenge of meeting life on its own terms with absolute knowledge that it all ends in death. For all of us. And there is no fear.

Now Michael and I are such great friends and we sit together, not in hell, but in a new kind of peace. It is a peace built on living without answers, of not having a clue, of not knowing much of anything, and still somehow accepting and trusting it all.

A Week in Hell

There have been 3 weeks of hell in this process so far. This past week has been one of them.

hell doors

8/1/17

There have been 3 weeks of hell in this process so far. This past week has been one of them.

The first one was the week of frantic driving to the Mayo Clinic, three days of invasive tests to receive Michael’s devastating diagnosis, the reality and shock only beginning to settle in as we drive home through the most terrifying storm, the most Biblical storm, I’ve ever driven in. On the way, our Iowa City doctor calls to tell us that Michael has ventricular tachycardia and he must stop driving “Now!” because he could die at any minute. I slip into the driver’s seat with no ability to assimilate this latest information as we drive through the horror of this night. We have to stop three times on the way home because sheets of rain are so dense that they cover the windshield obscuring vision that only lightning illuminates. The terrifying weather resonates perfectly with my inner terror – the shock of lightning, the horror of thunder and blinding rain, the bleak dark landscape with nothing but empty blackness ahead. This was a week from hell.

The second week was when Michael was near death in the hospital after his transplant with a white blood count of almost zero, not eating or drinking, with diarrhea and diapers, and only able to grunt and moan in communication. He literally doesn’t remember this week which is burned into me like liquid iron. This was a week from hell.

And then there’s this past week…. It started on Friday with Michael’s 5th bone marrow aspiration. It’s a horrible procedure to watch but it’s the kind of horror that I simply cannot turn away from. Sometimes I wish I was the kind of person who turns away, but I’m not. When horror presents itself, I feel I’m there to witness it. The aspiration literally involves having a large needle screwed into the hip bone so that the marrow can be extracted. It’s one of the ways the doctors keep track of what is really going on with Michael’s body and it happens every 3 months.

Luckily Michael is on morphine during these procedures and says they don’t bother him at all. I, on the other hand, am not on morphine though I can definitely see the appeal. It’s one of those squeamish procedures in which one sees bone being breached by a large, long needle, the needle literally thunking into the midst of the bone. Then the marrow, a bit thicker and darker than blood, is extracted and examined. It always makes me a little bit sick, nauseous really, but I am duty-bound to be there, to observe it, to undergo it with him.

We come home and Michael sleeps it off while I steady my stomach with some food, a walk and yoga. As I’m walking I think, “Darby is coming tomorrow!” and it makes me happy.

My son Darby has said that as an early birthday present he will visit and help me clean the basement. Michael is not allowed to be around dust and molds and of course, the basement is full of them, so Darby’s offer of assistance is necessary for any kind of movement in the vehement cacophony of basement trash.

The Basement! Like many basements, it’s become the repository for all the things we don’t want to deal with, don’t want to see. And it’s really bothering me. I know there are things in the basement that need to be cleared, need to be encountered, need to be revealed.

It’s been piled with boxes of stuff since we moved into this house almost 3 years ago. There’s a large pile of old area rugs. There are boxes of taxes, foodstuffs, lamps, bookcases, kitchenware, paint, art supplies, camping equipment, and luggage. There are Christmas decorations, mementos of my children’s childhoods, and record albums and CDs we haven’t listened to in years. There are old chests, old artwork, and really old photographs and written records tied up in boxes. The list goes on and on.

Darby and I work like dogs, or at least that’s how I feel — hard, physical labor. Up and down the basement stairs a hundred times carrying every heavy and awkward thing imaginable. Loaded car trips to Crowded Closet, the Crisis Center, and the recycling center begin to make a dent in the chaos.

Finally we come to the 40-year old painted wooden toy chest. I open the lid and find the box Michael has been looking for! It’s all his childhood stuff, family stuff, his baby pictures, his report cards, his school photos, him in his college Corps uniform, pictures of his son from babyhood and childhood. It’s his memory box. As soon as I move the box a cloud of black dust rises into my face. I look down inside the edge of the chest and there is black watery mold all along it. There’s a moment of horror as Darby and I both realize — this is black mold!

We look at each other and immediately know that all of the chest’s contents are contaminated and have to be destroyed. All of Michael’s mementos are full of death. I tell Michael and he goes and sits in his study. I think that this is hard for him but we don’t talk about it yet.

Darby and I put on masks and gloves and get the handcart that will allow us to move this ailing behemoth of a chest. The whole bottom of it is covered with the mold. It’s almost falling apart and it feels like it weighs a ton. We carefully walk it onto the cart. Darby pulls it up the stairs one awful heaving step at a time while Michael, who is now also gloved and masked, and I push the thing up from below to keep it from toppling. We finally get it to the curb with a huge sigh of relief and the sense of having dodged some sort of odd worldly bullet.

Michael goes into the house and Darby and I get into the car to head for Crowded Closet. “Well that was certainly an obvious metaphor,” he says. “Yes,” I agree. “Could it have been any more obvious?” We’re both laughing somewhat hysterically. “I mean, what did God want to say here?” Darby booms. “I mean, I’m not sure what the message was, God, so maybe you want to make it clearer!”

“Yeah, it’s not entirely clear, is it?” I laugh. “Hmm. Michael’s memory box is full of death! You think? Maybe Michael is supposed to let go of his memories….” Darby and I riff on this for awhile but we’re both pretty impressed. Metaphors this intense don’t come along every day.

We spend the next day and a half finishing the huge and filthy task of cleaning this basement, this unconscious mind that Michael and I have created, this part of ourselves that we haven’t been wanting to see. It feels Herculean, the cleaning of the Augean stables. Eventually, it is done. It’s been difficult but is entirely satisfying to my Virgo’s need for order and beauty.

Monday dawns well. I receive a lovely email from Darby’s wife and Michael gets the news that for the first time since we started this journey of illness a year ago, his bad numbers are finally coming down, moving toward the normal range. It’s phenomenal! Joyful! Hopeful! He goes to his chemotherapy appointment with more positive energy than either of us has felt in months.

Then a phone call from radiology arises. I’ve had an unusual mammogram. There are two spots that need to be looked at again. How soon can I come in? Tomorrow? Great. So as if any of us needed another reminder of Impermanence, there it is. A bad mammogram, a test that can mean so many things.

I have another mammogram and an ultrasound the next day. One of the spots is a cyst, the other one isn’t so easy to classify. The doctor says I can wait and watch it for a few months or I can have a breast biopsy. Of course I choose the biopsy. I can’t imagine walking around for several months wondering if I have breast cancer but this decision has many consequences – the largest being the emotional toll it will take on me and the people who love me.

I text Michael and my sons with the news on the way home. When I come in the door Darby says, “Want to hear something really weird? I just got a call saying that Dad got taken to the hospital in an ambulance! He’s having heart problems. There’s some kind of bizarre déjà vu going on here!” And it is bizarre.

Eighteen years ago on the very day that I was diagnosed with kidney cancer, my children’s father was told that he would need a quadruple heart bypass. Both of us ended up in the hospital at the same time, both of us with life-threatening conditions, both of us seriously ill.

It turns out that while my ex-husband was on the Great Bike Ride Across Iowa in the desperate heat of late July, he had become dehydrated. His heart went into atrial fibrillation, a fluttery and chaotic heart rhythm, and soon an ambulance is carrying him to a hospital in Mason City. We’re all a bit shaken and we wait uneasily for more news. Luckily, his heart recovers quickly and he ends his bike ride to come home.

Darby sees his Dad the next morning for breakfast and then I take Darby to the airport to go back to LA. I shed a few tears as he leaves but only a few. I’m not sure what is happening in my emotional field but I’m not reacting in ways I thought I would.

That afternoon we have our first appointment with Michael’s new doctor. He seems friendly and busy and he delivers news we haven’t heard before. Apparently the hope was that Michael’s numbers would be in the normal range long before this, and they’ve never even gotten close until now. The doctor sees the progress of his current chemotherapy regimen and he tells us that once Michael is at a normal level, he will have another year of chemo to endure.

Another year! I am floored. My heart sinks and there’s a heaviness in my chest that is almost unbearable. We’d been told at the outset that there would be a year of chemo after the transplant. We had accepted that and had been expecting we would be done with these poisons in the next 2-3 months. Now we’re looking at 14-15 more months. I feel like I can’t take this in. It’s simply too much.

When we arrive home we hear from Michael’s sister that his mother is in the ER after she became dizzy and nauseous and then fainted. Later she is admitted to the hospital for observation of her heart. We are more than a thousand miles away and all we can do is wait to hear what’s going on. Michael is completely worn out while I continue to be in an odd state of detachment.

I know I’m going through a lot – the bone marrow aspiration, the breast exams and the upcoming biopsy, the basement cleaning, the black mold, the additional year of chemotherapy, the heart problems of my ex-husband and my mother-in-law, my son coming and going. It’s all too much! And yet, still I don’t cry, I can’t cry, and I’m not sure why.

That evening Michael is so tired he’s in bed by 7pm while I watch some mindless thing on TV, just trying to find a break from all the chaos. I go upstairs and look in on him to find that he is barely awake. He reaches for me and I go to him, hugging and kissing him, and for a moment I bury my face in his neck.

It’s Michael’s smell! It’s the smell that I’ve known for 34 years. And now 34 years of memories come tumbling through me, moment after moment of this smell, this smell that I’d almost forgotten, that I hadn’t smelled in these last 12 months, this deep animal comfort, this home.

I leave the room, leave him to sleep, and find that at last, this smell has brought me to my knees. At last I am crying. It’s all been too much, all of it, all of these last 12 months, all of this suffering, all of this fear and worry, all of the heartache. I cry and cry.

I go to the breast biopsy alone. Others have offered to be with me but I’ve decided to face it alone and I’m not sure why. My blood pressure turns out to be the highest it’s been in years which isn’t that surprising, though I am surprised. I’d been feeling calm, feeling I could face whatever might come. And now I see that my body is really nervous. I send it messages of love and understanding. I tell my breasts they are fine.

The procedure isn’t as bad as it could be. There’s a lot of numbing beforehand, and the doctor says that the “vacuum” biopsy will be over relatively quickly. It hurts deeply for a brief time and the nurse tells me I’m being “so strong.” I wonder if she says this to everyone, but it doesn’t matter. It makes me realize that in spite of the fact that I feel like I’m ready to fall apart, that just one more nudge would put me over the edge, I’m doing ok. I’m hanging on. I go into a meditative state, and the biopsy is over. Seven days of hell ends with this.

Today we hear that the biopsy is benign! We also hear that Michael’s mother won’t be able to visit this week because of the medical problems she is having. When I hear this news I realize that this is the Way of the World. Perhaps it’s been a condensed version of it in this week of hell, but this is how it works. There are ups and there are downs, there are gains and losses, and sometimes the ups last for days or weeks or even years, and sometimes the downs do too.

And no matter what, it’s all about learning to find that sacred space in-between. It is the space that recognizes it’s all grist for the mill, that every moment, every event, is here to teach us to grow our souls ever more consciously, ever more kindly, with ever more love. It’s all here to wake us up. Bless it all. It’s all a gift, a kismet, a mystery, all unfolding exactly as it’s supposed to.

The Labyrinth

labyrinth

6/29/17

I go to a retreat center for much needed relief. I’m in a hermitage, the small solar-powered straw bale houses set off on a quiet place on the property. I’m immediately struck by the fact that I have chosen to hermit myself away from the hermitage of illness that’s been created by Michael in our home. I am completely burned out.

After I unpack I go to the labyrinth which is close by and for the first time ever, I am blessedly, unrestrainedly, alone. What a gift! As soon as I enter, I begin to weep. Just soft tears, realizing how sad I truly am, as I walk so slowly through this journey of the soul. I ask over and over to know my spiritual path. “Show me my path, show me my path.”

As the twists and turns unfold I am taken into the Eastern quadrant and there I begin to sob, to cry my heart out, alone in these woods, alone on this path. I am desolate with sorrow and loneliness. There’s no other word for it. Desolate. I realize I’m not prepared for how lonely the caregiver in me has become. Once I move into the South I begin to calm and other thoughts enter my mind – thoughts of the mystery of Spirit, thoughts about being taught this deep hard-edged lesson, thoughts about my astrological north node which has always cautioned me that my learning must be about independence.

Then I am in the West. I notice the animal tracks that I’m sharing this path with – deer, rabbits, chipmunks, birds. I notice the small branches that cross the path and instead of removing them I recognize them for what they are – the things which cross the path, the things that mark a brief stop or a need to step over or go around. I move even more slowly now. As I enter the North it becomes a place of recovery, a place for rest in which I am more sure-footed. But as I enter the East again, I am besieged by grief – overwhelming, heart-stopping grief. And again, it begins to abate in the South. I am curious but still crying.

I honor all the sacred directions and the powers they represent. The East – the realm of Air and Thought. The South – the realm of Fire and Spirit. The West – the realm of Water and Emotion, and the North – the realm of Earth and Groundedness. But I am drawn to stop in the West.

In the West, the King of Cups comes to me. I had drawn his card as the outcome for my summer solstice tarot card reading and had been wondering what the lesson is. He is “the fire of water” and his picture is one of a King sitting on a throne that is riding on top of the water. He is not taken under the water, into his emotions, in any way. He recognizes them, feels them, but does not dwell on them. And he holds the paradox of fire and water – Spirit and Emotion – a paradox that is held in balance as he sits on top of his feelings rather than being overwhelmed by them.

By the time I finally reach the Center, it all comes tumbling in. All the disparate parts of the self, all clamoring for attention, for simple recognition. I cry more deeply and then finally, I am calm. I sit for some time and leave the labyrinth without retracing my steps, knowing this is not the holy way, and not caring at the moment, just needing to be moving on, just needing to understand the lessons of the labyrinth.

I realize I have been dwelling in my sad emotions of late. It’s hard not to. There are times when I look at Michael sitting on the couch and I can barely stop myself from crying. His life has become so much smaller – days of reading, writing, meditating, computer surfing, and various distractions of food and TV. He even looks smaller. He’s curved inwardly and his spine is rounded and knobby. His arms are thin and he’s losing strength and grace.

Somehow the lessons of Water and Fire come pouring through me now – “Feel it all,” they say, “feel everything, and then turn it over to Spirit! Let yourself burn in the purifying fire. Let yourself be taken up to heaven and released.”

Outside the labyrinth there is a path called the Cosmic Walk and I decide to take it. There are markers all along the way starting with the appearance of modern humans, then prehistoric peoples, then mammals, then lizards, then sea life, then plant life, then bacteria. All of this occurs within a relatively brief span of the walk and there’s a great walking distance between this and the creation of the earth and the solar system – billions of years. Finally, many billion years later, and many more steps along the path, is the creation of the Milky Way and then all the way out to the Big Bang, or as the walk says, “The Great Flaring Forth.” I love this – the Great Flaring Forth. It reminds me of the Dazzling Dark on the Tree of Life. We are so small in our little lives, our little deaths. I emerge from the walk feeling cleansed and renewed.

I go into the retreat center’s meditation room. Again I am blessed with solitude in this soft silent space. When I emerge I see a prayer book for those who come here, a book to petition God for intercession into our heartsick lives. As I look through it, page after page contains the words, “Prayers for my dear husband….” I catch my breath realizing that countless others have come to this exact place before me with these exact words: prayers for my dear husband. It breaks my heart wide open and I cannot write these words for Michael. Not yet.

I walk the labyrinth alone again the next morning. So slowly. I wonder if I will once again encounter the deep grief of my thoughts in the East. But, remarkably, I don’t. There is a sinking, a swamp to be avoided, but I can walk through it without tears today. Then, unexpectedly, I break down in the West, the place of emotion and realize that maybe this is exactly the right place to break down. Today when I reach the Center, it is very peaceful — steady and calm and full. I walk out in the sacred way this time, unwinding my path from the Center to the beginning, to the end, and feeling the wholeness of this journey.

I go back to the meditation room now, then back to the prayer book. I write: “Prayers for my dear husband, Michael.”