“He’s still around. Just listen.”
– George Harrison (to Tom Petty after the death of Roy Orbison)
This is the longest I have gone between blog posts! Over the past week and a half, I have been immersed full throttle in end-of-the-school-year responsibilities. The workload this year is more overwhelming than ever (compliments of New York State’s APPR teacher evaluation system), and I have been putting in ten-hour days at school and then staying up until midnight in order to meet all the deadlines that come in rapid succession. Toward the end of the week, I felt completely exhausted and knew I couldn’t continue at this pace and intensity when grief is still so fresh and so physically and emotionally draining. It’s as if one marathon ended and was followed immediately by another. It is not a time to be some kind of superwoman and deprive myself of sleep. So, despite all that needs to be done within the next 12 days, I am taking a necessary breather and doing some writing before resuming my work.
The day before I returned to work following my bereavement leave, I attempted to begin cleaning up five months of chaos around the house and didn’t get very far, although I did manage to do the dishes. (And since then, I have resumed cooking meals!) At one point, I stopped to call a bereavement organization to order a book for my dad, and when I gave the woman my address, she queried, “N as in Nancy?” Nancy is my mom’s name, and I could barely answer another question or get off the phone soon enough before the cloudburst of tears began. It was such a raw, vulnerable feeling of never knowing when it’s going to hit or what will trigger the tears. And yet, I had no problem at all later that day getting water from the spring right next to where my mom worked for 34 years, perhaps because I expected it might be rough and was able to prepare myself – cover up the raw nerves. It’s the little surprises – such as a friend’s description of opening his dad’s old duffel bag and smelling his sweat and cologne – that sneak up and knock you off balance because you weren’t expecting them.
Several days later, I was on the phone once again giving my address and was asked the same question. Only this time, I shook my head and answered with a smile. Perhaps next time, I will offer, “N as in Nancy” right off the bat!
This is a well traveled path, and I appreciate and find great comfort in words from others who are walking ahead of me and are more familiar with this terrain. I especially appreciate when friends share experiences they have had of connecting with their dearly departed’s essence.
One evening, I felt a profound sense of peace and realized that – despite everything that has happened – all is well. And when I voiced that out loud to myself, I felt embraced. It was a wonderful feeling, like a spiritual hug. And it’s true: Losing a parent during adulthood is part of the natural order of life. Despite our personal losses, we are part of something so much larger than our little, individual selves. We are part of the rhythm and dance of Life. We are interconnected with all of life. This is so comforting! To know that I am part of this dance is such a blessing! It doesn’t even matter what I believe about what happens after we die. To know I am interconnected with the living universe is enough. My son and I talked about such things on the dock that evening with the light of stars and airplanes both in the sky and reflected on the calm water. We were looking for fireflies, which hadn’t come out yet. When I told him about feeling so peaceful and the sensation of being embraced, the first firefly flew past us, illuminated. We sat on the dock with lights twinkling above, below, and around us, dwelling in the feeling that “All is well.”
I feel much calmer now, in general. I don’t have to check my phone constantly or rush straight from school to my parents’ house, not knowing what small crisis might arise from day to day or hour to hour. No more racing against time and not knowing how far to the finish line.
Nature continues to uplift me and soothe my soul: The brilliant orange glint of orioles darting to and fro; cottonwood seed babies rising into the sun en masse; long (and nearly invisible) gossamer filaments drifting through perfumed air; the first couple lily pads floating on the water’s surface; being dazzled by an iris in the process of becoming (and the genius of nature’s packaging); and floating in my kayak, feeling at peace, and then noticing a familiar pair of wings beating toward me from across the river, for my beloved great blue heron finally has returned!
Nighttime is somewhat magical and definitely restorative. I dreamt again of a unicorn shaped cloud. One night, I woke up with a strong impression of a little technician next to me helping to reset my cells. It looked like a solar panel, with many rows and columns of photovoltaic cells that were being clicked on and off. Another time, I awoke in the middle of the night from a dream in which a woman who was very, very special and either dying or already dead communicated a message to me as I held her hand. I couldn’t remember a single word of the woman’s communication but woke up to a voice that said, “The veil is very, very thin right now.” (If that was an opportunity of some sort, I was too exhausted to take advantage of it.) Similarly, a family member who has been a lifelong religious and spiritual skeptic reported a highly symbolic and ineffable experience that included being enveloped by an indescribable golden light that pushed a force of happiness into him or her along with the understanding that my mom is with us and able to tune in to our thoughts. This relative felt my mom provided a glimpse of what it feels like to be in the afterlife, and I have been smiling all day since hearing about it. Other family members have shared their dreams and impressions with me, and it really feels (as one relative put it) as if my mom has cleared customs and been approved for earthly travel!
On a more “rational” level, so many questions began to bubble up to the surface this week, as I attempted to make sense of what I have experienced over the past six months. Did my mom have any closure in the end? When did she realize she was dying? What was that like for her? Was she able to achieve any sense of peace, or did she become stuck in depression and apathy? Is there anything I can do even now to help her to achieve closure? I read through my journal entries from the past six months with such questions in mind. I am grateful that I took the time to jot down notes about things my mom said from day to day that revealed various milestones, such as when she realized she would not get better and when she felt the cancer invading her body much more aggressively. I listened closely for subtle communications and took them seriously. I assured her that what she was experiencing was normal when she feared she was losing her mind, and invited her to talk about it – but it seemed she could only say so much. Did she suffer in silence? There definitely was a line I felt I could not cross without throwing everything and everyone completely off balance. There’s a lot I did do to help my mom during the months she approached death. But there’s so much more I wish I could have done and wanted to do.
These are questions to which I might never have answers. And what value would me having the answers contribute to the world, anyway? Perhaps it is best to rest in the questions. Let them be.
What is the best response to an active mind?
The fragrance of flowers,
the movement of clouds across the sky,
a field of fireflies,
breathing in and out:
Return to love.
Return, return, return.
More questions arose after I watched Martin Scorsese’s 208-minute documentary/biography, George Harrison: Living in the Material World (for the second time in recent months) from start to finish one evening. I am so inspired by the way George Harrison faced his death (and replay frequently his song, “All Things Must Pass”). It sounds like he wanted to immerse himself in meditation as he approached death and be as conscious as possible as he left his body. Was he able to do that? I wonder how heavily he was sedated during his dying days and to what extent the pain meds prevent a person from entering meditative consciousness? How do you balance meditation with medication when the pain is so bad?
I began to wonder (in a purely contemplative manner): Did my mom (who did not like to medicate herself unnecessarily and was very wary of morphine) receive palliative sedation that was appropriate to her level of pain, or was she essentially euthanized by meds that – in addition to relieving the pain – made her unaware and hastened death mercifully? Were we giving her too much pain medicine at the end, beyond what she would have wished? Or was she not letting on how ferocious the pain was, other than to insist she did not want to live like that? Is it possible not to be over-sedated in such a situation, or is the pain so absolutely unbearable that palliative sedation is the only compassionate response? And what implications does pain management have on entering death with awareness?
The latter is a question I found unsettling. Eventually, one answer I arrived at was to communicate to those who would be most closely involved in your care how they can take over a meditative practice or make a specific prayer request on your behalf when you are no longer able to communicate. This also includes making known your wishes for what readings or music you want around your deathbed, the level of lighting you prefer, etc. I remember how distracted I was during the birth of my first child by the conversations taking place around me and M*A*S*H being played on the television in the hospital room. It was a much more peaceful atmosphere the second time (a homebirth) when soothing music played, and I was surrounded only by loved ones (including my spiritual teacher) and a midwife who was attuned impeccably to my process. Surely, I imagine, the same atmospheric concerns would apply to death midwifery. At the same time, I believe that when a dying person is not lucid, processes are still taking place on other levels and dimensions and that there is much more going on than meets the eye.
These are some of the questions I intend to explore with my spiritual caregivers after the school year is over. Returning to George Harrison, however, perhaps some insight comes from his widow’s description of a bluish white light that engulfed him and filled the room when he died. Despite all the questions bubbling up in my mind, it seems to me that the experiences of light, peace, and spiritual understanding that we are gifted completely eclipse any thoughts our minds can entertain.
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