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.”

Anniversary

wedding

June 26, 2017

It’s our 30th anniversary today, and it’s certainly the strangest anniversary we’ve had. We spent the morning in the cancer clinic and chemotherapy suite which is always strained and difficult. I find I am raw today and I cried for the first time in front of our nurse practitioner who has become our primary care provider. Maybe it’s because it’s our anniversary, or maybe I just needed a reason to cry since I haven’t been openly crying lately. But today held more questions about the future and the long term outcome for Michael.

Today also made it clear that the “year of chemotherapy” we began this journey with, wasn’t really just a year. At that time I naively believed that I could get through a year. It’s only 12 months. It will be difficult but doable. Now we’ve been offered yet another drug after this one, and the promise of more chemotherapy advances in the future if that one doesn’t work. In other words, Michael could be on chemo until the day he dies which is exactly what happens to a great many patients.

I asked about the future if we stop the chemo and of course, she doesn’t have any answers. We can’t know what would happen if Michael quits the chemo, and we can’t know what happens if he stays on it. But she is really glad that we are talking about the quality of life and she wishes everyone would talk about it rather than just going from drug to drug to drug.

It’s Michael’s decision of course, but the quality of life right now is terrible. He’s tired, and there’s a lot of sitting around the house, timing the various daily therapies, and eating mushy, gravy-laden foods that are the only things that work with his dry mouth and swollen tongue. His skin looks sick and sallow and his eyes have constant bruising and tearing. Even a little scrape against clothing can cause bleeding and cuts that don’t heal for weeks. Our days are full of numbing sameness and our nights are full of searching the TV for something uplifting or interesting.

So today is a harder day, and as one of my friends says, it’s not going to get any easier. The longer we walk this road, the harder it becomes. It’s just the truth of long term mortal illness and the endless machinations of drugs and treatment regimens.

And because it is our anniversary, I’ve been thinking about our marriage vows more deeply. In fact, I went to the bookcase in which I was sure I had stored our vows only to find that the book I’d written them in wasn’t there. It’s not anywhere that I thought it would be and I’m puzzled by the metaphor that appears before me now – the “loss” of our vows. Clearly, it is a good time to deepen into those vows of 30 years ago but I have to do it from memory rather than from the actual words.

I’m sure there was something in the vows about “in sickness and in health” — some kind of acknowledgement that we are in this together, come what may. But we were so young then – mid-30’s – and we didn’t have a clue about what we were promising. Both of us were healthy active adults with children to care for, careers to grow, and a house that promised to hold us all together. We’ve been lucky. Our marriage has been a joy and a fellowship of mutual support, kindness, and deep soul connection.

Now with Michael’s illness, the “in sickness” part of our vows has become much more real. Though I had kidney cancer 18 years ago my recovery was relatively quick and uncomplicated. It left me with years of unexplained fatigue but we still went to work, went on vacations, had parties, visited grown children, had friends over for dinner, and lived a more or less ordinary life. Now our life is far from ordinary and both of us mourn its demise.

So I support him in his sickness knowing that it may never be healed, knowing that whether I like it or not, I choose to live out this vow made 30 years ago. It’s a tougher vow than I realized at the time of course, but it’s a vow that speaks to one’s integrity and one’s soul and I know that I am growing in both of these.

We spoke with a psychic recently, a woman we trust, a woman who has given us good advice over the years. And I’ve been watching Michael since that time, watching to see what he is going to do with the information she gave us.

She said Michael’s illness is all about the long term karma of self-sacrifice. She said he’s been a healer in many lifetimes, and each of those lives has involved giving too much and not receiving enough in return. She says the cure for Michael is to meditate on the light and dissolve into it. He’s good at this and he takes this task seriously. The cure is also for him “to learn the energy of receiving.”

He’s been puzzling over this and I’ve been asking him what he thinks it means. So far, no real answer has emerged for him and I’m not really sure that one will. The psychic also said that since Michael has attained his enlightenment, he will not have to return to an earthly existence. Now he sees our whole scenario as a “win-win” situation — either he’s healed and he lives a normal life span, or he dies and he dissolves into the Oneness that is his true home.

In our conversation about the psychic reading he asked me what I needed and I found myself saying, “I need you to get better!” It was so childish, really, a child’s cry against the unwavering reality of physical decline. I knew it was childish but it was also true, and I dissolved into tears.

I can see that these patterns probably aren’t going to change. For what is the energy of receiving? It must involve the opening of the heart and truly knowing that you can’t do it alone. And this is a man who has always done it alone as long as I was at his side. He has never admitted defeat, has never needed anyone but me to help him, has never been overwhelmed by this life, this illness.

But I can also see where this is leading. At some point, he will be gone, and I can see that at the level of his enlightened consciousness, it’s all the same to him.

The Talk

Heart sidewalk

January 17, 2017

This morning we had The Talk. We’ve had it once before right after Michael was diagnosed, but today we went further. It’s the talk that’s hard to have. It’s the talk about death and dying.

When we had the talk six months ago we were lying in bed with Michael’s head on my shoulder while my tears covered the top of his bald spot. “What do you want done with your body?” I ask. “It’s immaterial,” he said, and we both chuckle at the pun. But he means it. It really isn’t important to him at all. “Burial? Cremation? Ashes scattered?” Really not important. “Memorial service?” Only if it helps the living, helps me, only if I want one.

Every answer is for me to do what is best for me because it really isn’t important to him. He knows he’ll be gone and he’s not afraid. He worries about me though, about what I’ll do. And all I can say is that I really don’t know, don’t know, don’t know.

In our hubris and our naiveté, we’d believed that we knew how our deaths would go down for us. We had a life reading with a Tibetan lama many years back and we were told that Michael would live to be 93, and I would live to be 87. We were at peace with this scenario. It seemed right and we could live with it. In fact, we believed it.

The idea has always been that Michael would be fine without me. He is a hermit at heart. He loves to read and study and learn and he can do it for hours on end and never be bored or lonely. He’s great at entertaining himself and for the most part, I’ve been the only person he’s needed to have around. He loves others, of course –his family, his son and his son’s family, my sons and their wives, a few close friends – but he’s never needed others around the way I have. He’d miss me, of course, but he’d read and write and teach and he’d be fine.

For years we could see this old couple we were becoming, loving each other for 50 years or so, my easy death, and eventually he would follow me with his own easy death six years later. Ha! It’s a great picture, isn’t it? This conceit, this fantasy, this idea that we have any control whatsoever over our fates.

Then today Michael says he is realizing again that he may actually die of this illness he has. Of course we’ve known this, but to truly know it and live it, is completely different. Like grief, these realizations seem to come in waves, and for whatever reason, another wave is washing us toward greater clarity now.

For the past several weeks I’d been re-reading these words I’ve written and just recently I found that at the end of Michael’s hospitalization the doctor had said that the light chain proteins in his blood would go down to zero in 4-6 weeks. It brought me up short. It’s now been more than 10 weeks and the light chain proteins are still around 300. They’ve been decreasing, which is good, but they’re not gone, and it is a potent reminder that this disease may not respond the way we thought it would, the way it was “supposed” to.

At this moment, when Michael realizes once again that he might actually die from this disease, I realize that I’ve been holding my breath for such a long time. I haven’t been speaking the words that I’ve been needing to speak. So finally I tell Michael I’ve been thinking the same thing, thinking that he could die, and he makes a joke of it (“Well, but that’s you.”). And we both laugh but tears are now streaming down my face.

We decide that we’re ready to ask our doctor for the real deal, the come-to-Jesus talk, the is-it-time-to-put-my-life-in-order talk. And in the process we discover that we’re ready to talk it over with each other again too.

So we start with my death. Michael says that if I die first, “which seems highly unlikely,” said as another joke, he would move to be near his son and his family. He’d be an old codger walking around and studying spiritual correspondence courses and spending endless hours online doing research and wise-cracking on Facebook. Of course he would “miss me forever.”

He expects that if he dies first, I would move to California to be near my sons. I don’t know what I’d do but for the first time I say, “What’s really happening is that I am getting ready to be a widow.” I’d been thinking this for weeks and finally I say it out loud to him. It feels hard and true.

Maybe I’d move eventually, maybe I wouldn’t, but then I said another thing that I didn’t know I would say. I tell Michael I would look for another partner. And he expects this, he knows this, he even wants this for me! No hurt feelings, no resentment, no recriminations – just the truth.

He knows I’m good at being a partner. I’m good at loving another human being closely and intimately. As a would-be astrologer he’s studied my chart, “You have so many planets in the 7th house, the house of partnerships and relationships. It’s one of the things that keeps you growing,” and he wants me to keep growing.

I know all of this about myself, of course, but to speak of it with such rawness was life-giving. Michael wants me to be happy, whether he is here or not, and again there are tears in my eyes as I write this.

We hug long and hard and I say, “But I’d rather it was with you,” and we hug even longer and hold each other as we both cry. And now the air is clear around us. There is peace and gentle kindness. I look at Michael and realize how precious he is, how amazing his deep soul is, and how grateful I am that we have been together in this life.

So today we turn to face the future with our great soft hearts wide open, knowing that whatever comes, is what should come — trusting that Spirit always brings exactly what is needed at exactly the right time. We have faith that what life gives us will be accepted with grace and courage. We mean to bless it all with gratitude and tears. And dear god, I believe we will.