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.