Pre-Planning

What I’m really being struck by is the whole idea of being able to “pre-plan” for death. When it actually happens, I have no idea how I’ll respond.

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3/11/2018

Our trip to Florida isn’t anything like I thought it would be. We both hold the fantasy that Michael will magically feel better, that the ocean will buoy us up, that somehow we will recapture our old selves in our shared experience of this magnificent beauty.

In this other environment, this “pattern accelerator” as Michael calls it, almost nothing is as it has been before. I do most things alone because Michael really can’t go with me for our usual hours on the beach – walking, wading, picking up shells. I have to see the reality of the change from this year to our last trip two years ago. And now I see it.

Instead, Michael is sick much of the time. The doctor keeps him on one of his chemo medications and by itself it causes a huge amount of water weight gain. He is heavy and tired and sluggish. It’s a major effort for him to walk to the beach, and all we can really do together is talk, play scrabble, and watch the tube.

This is a real wake-up call! No matter how beautiful it is here, no matter how healing it is to be at the ocean, no matter how much we want things to be the way they once were, they have changed and our old selves are gone. About half way through our month away I open the door to another hard conversation about the future.

The day before we had seen a TED talk in which a man speaks about the American way of death. He says that though virtually everyone wants to die at home, six out of ten people die in the intensive care unit of a hospital. Another three out of ten die in some kind of assisted care facility while only one in ten actually ends up dying at home. Additionally, only one out of a hundred people actually know that they are dying as they die!

This really brought our death plans to the forefront, plans that I thought we’d made but that I realize now we haven’t made at all. The TED talk sits with me most of a sleepless night and I know we have avoided dealing with the painful and necessary stage of “pre-planning.” In the middle of the long night I meditate and know that we have to move forward.

Today I say, “I think it’s time we start to look at what the options are around burial.” I state this with a practiced sense of straight forward confidence, but inside I’m feeling a sense of unreality and fear.

Michael is the kind of person who responds to this suggestion without getting scared or defensive. I know he’s thinking about these same things but he isn’t talking about them. “What do you mean?” he says.

“I think we should contact some funeral homes and see what the options are.”

“OK,” he says. And that’s that. Since I’m the person in our relationship who does much of the online research around death and dying, I start getting information.

This means contacting the local funeral homes about the cheapest and easiest cremation possible, for this is what Michael wants. We’ve been shocked to discover that at one of our local mortuaries even cardboard box cremations run well over many thousands of dollars. But even with this surprise, I can’t help thinking, “Oh well, it’s all part of the process. This is the American way of death.”

The “pattern accelerator” that we’ve always found at this ocean continues to work overtime and we spend the day looking at what to do with ashes, with what remains of Michael after he’s gone. We look at the “Columbarium” in Oakland Cemetery, we think about selling the burial plots we bought 25 years ago since granite markers now seem beside the point. We look at planting a tree from his ashes. I spend several hours looking at online urns, glass art made of cremains, and cremation gemstones.

It’s a huge business, these mementos of a loved one’s passing. I find that for several hours I can let myself be involved in the beautiful gems and the luminous glass art that I can make of Michael’s ashes while he looks at large varieties of online urns. We talk about it and I show him some of the art that’s been made of ashes. It’s all very calm and chummy, even fun, and then suddenly I realize what we’re doing and it all comes crashing down. My heart is thunderstruck by the calamity of loss, by the looming emptiness of his passing.

“It’s all just stuff!” I say, and I start to cry. Michael knows exactly what I mean. He comes over and hugs me and we cry together. It is this being held that is real and raw and true.

But what I’m really being struck by is the whole idea of being able to “pre-plan” for death. We all want to have control, and it actually makes sense to think ahead, to have things done that can get done, to face into what the loss will mean in its small and necessary details.

But can any of us ever really pre-plan for death? I mean, I feel I’ve been preparing myself for a long time now. I’ve seen Michael’s death a thousand times. And I know that he has too. And yet, neither of us has any real idea of what his dying and death will be like. This is only my ego talking, only my ego trying to prepare me for that which is beyond control. And if this time has taught me anything it’s that there is no control over dying and death, and really, not much control over many of the events that happen to us in this life.

I feel my fear scrambling to protect me from the inevitable and I realize that the writing, the art, and the deep conversations are all an attempt to face into, and also to avoid, the pain. But there is no escape. When it actually happens, I have no idea how I’ll respond.

I ask Michael to write his obituary because there are things about him that I don’t know – and I certainly don’t know what he wants to have said about himself after he dies. He spends several days at this, and when I finally read it I know that it is a wonderful remembrance of his life.

So now we have ideas about cremation, about ashes, about obituaries. But there’s really no way I can “plan” for the event of his death, or for that matter, the event of my own. I find myself moving again into the vast realm of not knowing which seems to be the only true place to anchor myself. It’s a hard practice, finding an anchor in the Unknown, but as I keep learning, it’s the only practice worth doing. It forces me to choose to have complete faith in the process that’s unfolding.

I go back to meditation and I’m taken to a wide open field, opaque and yet brightly lit. There is a continuous fountain of evolving energies arising in this openness, unformed and wild. And, paradoxically, there is nothing here but the confrontation with mortality and the absolute certainty of love. In this place I am told that this is how the Mystery awaits us all, a sudden collapse of events bringing an end to the body, a bright loving light guiding the soul into the unknown.

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.

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.”

Dance of Life and Death

Shiva

April 3, 2017

Today a woman almost died in the clinic. She was in the lab getting her blood drawn prior to receiving her chemotherapy. Apparently her blood pressure bottomed out and suddenly we hear a loud voice shouting, “We need a crash cart. Now!” All kinds of medical personnel arrive quickly and the air takes on a hurried urgency that is not usual for these generally boring days. A nurse comes out and tells us there’s been an emergency and no one will be taken into the lab for awhile.

Michael and I immediately go into meditation, sending light and love to this unknown person and her helpers. Both of us feel the patient’s soul struggling to decide whether to stay here or leave. I am aware of angels and Michael feels she’s decided to stay on earth but isn’t really happy about it – there is still some work for her to do.

In the meantime, another nurse comes out and begins talking with the only African American woman sitting alone in the waiting room, waiting like the rest of us. I realize that it is her mother or sister or friend who is in trouble. The nurse says they will be taking the patient to the ER, and then goes back into the lab to help.

I watch the room and for the most part people simply keep doing whatever it was they were doing, sort of a “business as usual” stance, though this is hardly usual. No one looks at the woman sitting with us whose life has just been upended. I’m not sure if it’s because she is Black or more likely, because they simply don’t know what to do. I cross the room to sit with her and ask if there’s anything I can do to help. She looks at me with tears in her eyes and says they will be going to the ER soon. I say, “We’re praying for you.” She takes my hand and we sit for a moment in the stillness of calamity.

Eventually, the patient is taken on a gurney to the ER. I see she has oxygen and IV’s but she is clearly unconscious, and the little drama moves on to another venue, as her friend or sister or daughter follows her down the hall.

But I am more shaken by this than I realize. As we walk up the stairs to the chemo suite I am suddenly weak and sickened, and a migraine begins its dreadful journey up the back of my neck and into my head.

This could be me, I realize, this could be Michael on that gurney. This clinic isn’t just some place we visit every week. It’s a life-threatening, life-saving place – a place of Western medical healing, and as primitive as it is, it’s what we’ve got. It’s the slim thread of hope.

We’d been beginning to talk about treatment as The Long Slog. We’ve been at this for 5 months now and we have at least 7 months left to go. This feels like a very long time some days and of course there’s no guarantee that everything will be better after all of this treatment is finished. We keep saying we’re “buying time” as if time is something that can be bought, when really we know that it’s all up to some Mystery that is far beyond our ability to control or comprehend.

Regardless, it’s all become bizarrely routine – the weekly trips to chemotherapy, the “up” time on Tuesdays after Monday’s dose of steroids; the lack of sleep; the creeping bruising, redness and tearing around Michael’s eyes; the growing fatigue; the ongoing problems with swelling of his tongue and mouth, and the list goes on. And regardless of how bad this may all sound, we’re actually weathering it with a fair amount of acceptance and calm.

Last week someone asked me how I’m doing and I found myself saying, “I’m walking through hell but I’m doing it pretty well.” And then, of course, it all broke down today and the reality of our situation came flooding through me and I was able to feel the true sadness and strain of what we are enduring.

So today was not routine. The woman going to the ER reminds us that this is anything but routine. People get really sick from these treatments and people die from these treatments. And it’s a hard road for all of us – for those who get better and for those who don’t.

But what I am realizing more and more often is that this isn’t something special or unusual or even out of the ordinary. People get sick all the time and people die from their illnesses or from some awful accident or they just keel over suddenly and without warning. This truly is the Human Condition – a phrase that continues to garner levels of meaning for me as we move through this illness together — patient and caregiver.

But as common as it may be, it isn’t routine, nor should we let it become routine. It is the dance of life and death that all of us have come here to learn. Today I realize that someday I may be the woman following the gurney down the hall. And I pray that when that day comes, I have the strength to walk with Spirit, knowing that I am exactly where I am supposed to be.

Hope and Poison

flower sidewalk

Feb 25, 2017

I had tea with a friend yesterday and he told me that the word “poison” was a word he had trouble with in my writing. I said, yes, it’s a hard word, a harsh word, but that I had used it consciously. The more I think about it though, the more depth I’ve encountered with it, and the consciousness I thought I had with the use of this word has been questioned and deepened.

Michael is being poisoned, and it’s a word we both use. It dissolves any sense of denial that we might have about what is happening, about the reality of this treatment he is undergoing. But as my friend said, it is also the poison that heals. And that is also the truth.

I’m not ungrateful for this treatment. Without it, Michael would be dead within the next several months. I’m also not ungrateful to the people who give us these treatments. They work hard and they are saving lives, and by and large, they are truly dedicated and caring.

But it’s such a primitive way of healing, this poison we consume. I remember going to an event at which Bill Moyers was present because he wanted to use the work for his series on healing. The presentation was about cancers and the way we heal them. The refrain of the song throughout the piece was “Cut, poison, burn!” and the woman who sang this piece performed it with anger and intensity.

It really struck me at the time, and it strikes me still. It’s all we’ve got, this cutting, poisoning, and burning our way through diseased bodies. This is the way Western medicine works right now, and we pay a high price for this healing.

Michael and I have spent most of our adult lives studying and using healing methods that are gentle and in alignment with nature. We have used alternative medicine as ancillary treatment for all kinds of illnesses, including cancer. We know of people who’ve chosen to pursue nothing but alternative treatment for cancer, and we know of several of those who have died. We also know the stories of those who have healed through diet, herbs, energy medicine, and meditation alone.

So we come to Michael’s treatment with a huge load of ambivalence. There are no alternative treatments for Amyloidosis so there doesn’t seem to be any way around our current path. But it’s hard. We believe so deeply in healing from that other realm, from the realm of energy and intention, from the realm of Spirit, that to subject ourselves to this system is difficult and disturbing.

And it does feel like a subjugation, a surrendering of ourselves, to a system that doesn’t understand us or our underlying ambivalence. How can it? It’s built around a method of treatment that gives little credence to diet or herbs or energy fields or any of the methods that we’ve seen work. It’s impersonal and lacks the individualized attention that is one of the hallmarks of alternative medicine. We are just a cog in a giant machine that at its base, cannot care for us in any other way. There are simply too many people to treat and too little time.

Now we’re starting to see the side effects of these “poisons that heal.” Michael is very tired, much more tired than he’s been before, and he can’t seem to sleep well enough to feel better. Even on the few nights when he does sleep well, it’s not enough to allay his underlying fatigue. His eyes look sick. They are red and swollen and they itch and bruise easily. His skin tears with the slightest rubbing against a harsh surface. He still can’t eat much of anything that doesn’t have a sauce around it, something to make it easy to chew and swallow.

In spite of this, Michael and I spend a fair amount of time every day meditating on health and healing. It is what we can do, what anyone can do, to help themselves heal. It brings the light of Spirit into a process that could lack that light without our conscious intentions. And it allows us to hope.

My friend reminded me of a quote from Meher Baba who exhorted his followers to “have hope,” and I found my ambivalence again. Though hope can be the perfect support for any endeavor, it can also bring an influx of desire and wanting with it. And when that kind of hope gets frustrated it leads to anger, fear, and despair.

So I’ve been careful in my hoping, and I think that is exactly what Meher Baba would have supported. As my friend writes to me today, “It is not ‘blind hope’ (like ‘blind faith’) or ‘grasping/craving hope’ that he is advocating, but a hope informed by the reality of grace and mercy.”

I do hope, we both hope, but we hope knowing that we have no control over the outcome of our hoping, that things may turn out very differently from what we hope. And knowing this, with full acceptance, we surrender to reality just as it is, over and over again, trusting that the larger plan of Spirit will bring us to exactly the place we are supposed to be.

Staying Strong

Beatrice

December 29, 2016

“Stay strong!” These are the last words my son says to me as he and his wife board their plane back to LA after their holiday visit with us.

“Stay strong,” and of course he is right but immediately the questions arise. Others have also used this phrase with me. It’s so easy to say, such a short and concise edict for behavior in the face of…. what? My husband’s illness and debilitation? The obvious loss of the life we once knew? The sometimes overwhelming physical, emotional, and mental tasks that this involves?

What does it really mean to stay strong? My husband is sick, really sick, and in chemotherapy for the next 10 months or longer. I have watched the effects of the last four months of hospitalization, a stem cell transplant, and massive doses of poison, and I think, what does being “strong” look like now?

Does being strong mean that you don’t cry? If that’s what it means, I’m failing miserably. I’ve cried and cried, usually just a few tears but sometimes by myself, I wail. I mean that literally – I wail! I wail with grief and stress and sadness and frustration and pain. And there’s really no way that I could do this otherwise. So I don’t believe that staying strong means not crying. In fact, just the opposite. If I wasn’t crying, I’d be going insane. I’d be suppressing very real emotions that must be expressed, that must find the light of truth, that must be loved and accepted for what they are – the simple and complicated sorrow of a loved one’s mortal illness.

My son is not comfortable with my tears and I don’t blame him. I mean, who really wants to see their mother cry? And I wonder if all the people who exhort me to stay strong are also uncomfortable with tears. Or is this exhortation something else?

I’ve been struck over and over by the “happy face” that people put on in the chemotherapy unit. It’s upbeat in a bizarre and shallow way. Can this be what is meant by staying strong?

People chat about little things, unimportant things – what they got for their birthday, what happened on their drive to the hospital, what their daughter said to their mother, the TV show they watched last night. So much talk about the inconsequential and the mundane. It is this happy talk that is the most disconcerting to both of us because it feels like a denial of the harsh reality we are facing.

Clearly it would be worse if everyone came into this unit complaining and focusing on the negative forces that surround us here. But surely this happy talk isn’t what is meant by staying strong.

Every now and then someone talks about the effects of the drugs they are ingesting, about how hard it is to sleep or eat, about how weak they feel. But this is said with a laugh and a smile, and is immediately countered with more laughter and a happily resigned statement of acceptance. “Oh well, it will be fine.”

Sometimes the chemotherapy effects are talked about with obvious depression and hopelessness. This is harder and is met with silence or negation. “It will get better. You’ll see. Just hang in there.” In either instance, the underlying message doesn’t get acknowledged. It’s just too hard for most of us to hear! We don’t know what to say in the face of this pain and suffering and so we slip into deflection and denial. We tell the sick person how good they are looking and we focus on the latest medical discoveries or the next holiday or who is coming to visit soon. We certainly don’t talk about dying.

Meanwhile, Michael and I sit in our chemo cubicle in relative silence. We meditate or read books or listen to podcasts. Anything to distract us from the reality of the poison that is entering Michael’s body. But really, is what we are doing any better than what these other people are doing? It’s different, yes, but we’re all just trying to get through something that is simply awful.

As I think about it, staying strong must mean continuing to face into the truth of what is happening to me, to my husband, to us. We’ve lost so much already and of course we are looking at the possibility of losing more. Clearly, things will never be the same again and our old life is gone.

But that’s true for all of us. Every moment of every day things are changing and our old lives are gone. Not all of us are facing into the truth of mortal illness, but all of us have our own truths to face. Certainly that must be part of what it means to stay strong – to face into all of the hard truths as deeply and clearly as possible, the hard truths of all of our feelings, all of our thoughts — and to face them with courage and love.

Michael made a card for me for Christmas around the theme of Dante and Beatrice saying that I am his Beatrice, journeying with him to Paradise. It ends with a quote: “Do not be afraid; Our fate cannot be taken from us; It is a gift!” And perhaps this is the strongest place for any of us to stand — squarely facing our fate and realizing over and over that it is a blessing and truly, it is a gift.