Telling the Truth

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

Screen Shot 2018-07-14 at 9.24.29 AM

July 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Will his skin improve?” “No.”

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

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

“Will his impotence disappear?” “No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living with Dying

Now that we have grieved, and only because we have grieved, this day can move forward within feelings of gentleness and peace.

 

Screen Shot 2018-02-24 at 10.16.05 AM

2/22/2018 at Cape San Blas

Received from a friend:

I recall as though it were yesterday seeing Michael on a number of occasions answering a cell phone call from you. It was so touching to see the expression on his face — gentle, loving, happiness.  I recall feeling as though I was witnessing something precious [something that few married couples achieve].  

I will also confide in you something I witnessed sitting in the waiting area one day at Eastwind. You had a very dear moment standing in the hallway in front of an open office door. No one else was present.

There was this sweet moment in which you both kissed gently and hugged briefly with the sun streaming in that window behind you. I have not told anyone because I felt I had accidentally invaded and witnessed a private moment.  That image has never left me and makes me happy to have seen such deep love.

I am living and Michael is dying. It’s the simple and profound truth that we face every day. Of course I’m dying too, but that kind of thought goes nowhere and doesn’t really touch the living reality of our time together.

I can see the dying in his bruised face, his swollen legs, his atrophied muscles, his increasing lethargy. Since we are at the ocean for awhile, we are together all day, so there’s literally no escape from these truths. This means that every day we must face grief yet again. Another fresh dose of sorrow awaits us each morning with its pale insistent face, and whether it is acknowledged then or not, it is sitting there waiting to be seen – the sad, persistent, and inevitable guest in our relationship.

When I awaken there is always a brief time in which the pain isn’t there yet, it hasn’t been realized yet, and I’m simply myself, waking up. It’s such a relief, this brief time of waking, but it is short and soon reality sinks in again.

What I realize is that it’s absolutely necessary to acknowledge this suffering every single day. How I wish I didn’t have to! But I’ve noticed that if I try to ignore it, it doesn’t go away. Rather, it turns into some sort of ugliness or falseness, something unreal.

This means we are truly living with dying. And because of this, I’m seeing that Michael and I are on completely different trajectories – his gradually declining into greater and greater helplessness while mine is working mightily toward greater living. It is hard for me to maintain this within an atmosphere of death and I have to concentrate to keep myself from falling into an exhausted depression, or worse, an angry resentment. It is a daily practice, sometimes a moment to moment practice, of striving toward life and love and liberation. Meanwhile he moves inexorably toward the dual-faced liberation and resignation of dying.

I find myself wishing for his death more often these days. Not out of anger, though anger still sneaks in from time to time, but now the wish is riding in on waves of exhaustion. I’m truly sick of this situation. Sick and tired. But I also know that this time is sacred and that it is teaching me more about love than I ever knew was possible. I keep wondering how much more there is to learn, and then I know that the learning is infinite.

I don’t want to get sick in order to express these feelings. But they are very strong and they need to find words to fulfill them lest they turn into anger or disgust or some kind of distancing diversion. Then I realize that this, too, is love, that this striving toward expression forces me to stay honest, to speak what needs to be spoken, especially when it is hard to speak.

Love is so different from what we think it is, so different from what we’ve read or seen or been told. It’s the daily emergence of all that arises in you and your loved one, and then finding the most compassionate and most truthful way to respond. It’s the encounter with the Beloved, with the deep raw heart of God.

Today I find that Michael is crying and when I speak to him, I am crying too. He says, “I know you will feel relief when I die, and I don’t blame you.” It’s the first time he’s said this and it is such a hard truth but I acknowledge it.

“Yes,” I say, “there will be relief. And there will also be horrible, desperate loss.”

“But you will be free!” he says.

“And so will you,” I say. Now we both hear the truths we are speaking and we cry together. It is the kind of crying that brings real comfort for we have touched each others’ hearts. Now that we have grieved, and only because we have grieved, this day can move forward within feelings of gentleness and peace.

Since neither of us is denying Michael’s death, things are easier in some ways, and more stark. I’m feeling other dimensions of this experience, and the confrontation with the huge abyss of loss allows fear to arise. For a moment, I fear his death, I fear being alone, and more than that, I fear being without him in my life. I’m not sure who I’ll be on my own. I’m not sure that I will be strong, or that I will move through the world and its deep suffering with any kind of grace or calm.

Now I go to the sea for renewal. I find my emotional self stumbling when I’m alone. I stumble and wobble and cry and I wonder how I will face another month or two months or twelve months of this living death. But as I walk, I know I will. And what then? What when he is truly gone?

Far away, I see his familiar figure approaching me on the beach. I’ve been out for an hour and now he makes his slow progress in my direction. But it’s still his very particular silhouette even though it is bent and slow, it is still Michael coming toward me on the beach. How many times have I seen this? How many times has my heart gladdened to see him coming closer until we finally meet? We kiss, more a peck than a kiss, but still, it’s contact. I know there will be a time when this man will no longer come toward me on the beach, and when I say this to him, I find that he is crying along with me, and my heart breaks open once again.

Our friend was so right. She saw these sweet moments, this huge blessing of a life lived with deep love. We meet and once again we are washed clean by an ocean of tears and grief — freed in this wild, beautiful, endless water.

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.

Screen Shot 2018-02-11 at 7.05.33 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2018-01-13 at 12.12.54 PM

 

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.

Screen Shot 2017-11-19 at 10.13.56 AM

“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.