Lunar Eclipse by Mark Moore of Brighton, Michigan, via Jonathan Gold
What do you do “in hospice” when you have an upcoming expiration date but still a clear mind? I’ve never done this before and am no expert, but life and death are so fascinating….and mysterious…that one person’s experience might be interesting. So, I’ll share.
I’m planning for the biggest trip of all.
It’s a different kind of work than I was used to doing, so it took me a beat to see that’s what I was doing. I’m used to being busy with too much to do and lots of company in this world, not quiet and contemplative with the urge to hunker down with John (and the kids when they’re home). Hunkering down isn’t my nature, but when you think about it, it makes sense, doesn’t it? If you have the flu, do you feel like seeing people when you’re at your most sick? I’m not in great pain (thank goodness) but cannot eat much and am growing weaker every day. Our hospice team is ready and willing to help in every way possible, but in many ways, this is a waiting game. I can’t control it. That’s hard. I can only control my reaction. Hunkering down feels right.
I spend much of my days now learning about this last, great adventure which we will all take. I learn from people who died and came back, psychologists who hypnotize patients and are surprised to learn about past lives, and hospice caregivers who have been part of this sacred dance, many, many times over decades. By the way, thank goodness for hospice and the work of Elizabeth Kubler Ross and others. Dying in the modern medical age before hospice, was often just plain cruel. Our ancestors knew better, but, as with so much, we separated ourselves from the reality of death and forgot how to do it.
I have always thought there is too much evidence of a higher power (…just try to make even a single leaf without raw materials, much less a rainbow; we can’t) to ignore the idea. The glimpses we get of higher love, even amongst ourselves, bear even more witness to whatever source power you choose to believe in and whatever you want to call it. I was glad to find there is similarly LOTS of evidence of a soul life after our physical bodies can’t sustain life on earth anymore due to cancer, terminal illness, an accident…or if you’re really lucky, old age. Raymond Moody’s Life After Life was a groundbreaking book when it first came out. Now, there is a whole genre of books about patients’, caregivers’, and families’ experiences at the end of life. Most of the stories have at least a dozen elements in common (the bright light, floating above your body, meeting soul mates etc.). This is not my first reading of these books, but it’s certainly the most focused. Can they all be wrong? No way. It’s a mystery but not without clues.
So, I read. I meditate (confession, I don’t love it and forget about sitting on a cushion). I dream and pay attention to those dreams, hoping for visits from souls who can comfort me. I’m looking for my dad, who passed in August, my beloved grandmother, my aunt, my cousin, his dad…I’m looking for guidance because THEY are the people who actually know what this transition is like. They’ve done it. They are our mentors. My dreams have always been wild, so following them sometimes feels like hanging onto a mechanical bull. At times, they are peaceful. Jesus sat with our little family in a light blue robe a month or so ago. He was there for my soul, but he comforted John, Sophie, and Grant. We didn’t say much (anything?), but it was nice…and consistent with my Catholic and Episcopalian roots.
We all grieve what might have been, also. That’s real. I’d rather be preparing to visit Sophie in Spain or Grant at college…dancing at Sarah’s and Chelsea’s weddings…prepping for that big trip to Australia with John or Namibia with Susan. It feels as if that’s what should be, but this is what we have. Our kids are bravely carrying on with life as well. It took a lot of balls for them to hug their mom goodbye, then get on planes to Granada and Philadelphia. We are left with “empty nesting” in hospice. I hope you are enjoying the weddings, the travel, and even just the dinners out that John and I imagined at this stage. What do we do? John and I spoil Rocky even more. I take some pleasure in the leaves changing, the sun on my face, and the little bit I can eat. With John’s help, I still cook some, mostly for nostalgia (e.g., Chaldean hamuth kibbeh, tortilla Espanola, anything Minna made), whatever the kids want when they’re home, and because that’s one of my creative expressions and love languages. It’s hard to stop a lifetime habit. I’m still a foodie, just a hungry one. I gathered our favorite family recipes, so they will be handy, later. I play word games because I still can. I made our family photo album again this year and bought some Christmas presents. It’s hard to stop doing the things of life if you don’t have to yet. It’s liberating to know that I can be done when needed. When I need to rest.
Nothing has been left unsaid to anyone. I’ve had extraordinary conversations with both of our kids, who are learning to face mortality so much younger than most these days. I hope it somehow helps them live more fully, with less fear…eventually. John and I have had almost 3 years of meaningful conversations; we don’t need many words now. There are letters waiting for John and our kids, some for specific milestones I’ll miss on earth (good idea, Sophie). I’ve gotten my metaphorical, and in some sense physical, house in order. This has been the benefit of a long goodbye rather than an abrupt ending. John and I have discussed my cremation and burial. How’s that for surreal? Our priest, Jeanne, has been by to share blessings and plans; I’m lucky she’s a friend. We’ve planned a memorial for later when kids and friends will be home (and I’m likely to be gone). I hope it gives you what you need, and that you love each other and surround my family. John will be the one to share more about all that, at the right time.
We watch shows at night. Documentaries. Series. Nothing dark anymore; I just can’t. Mostly it’s just John, Rocky, and me. I still love to share what we think about these shows. John’s my favorite conversation buddy. He gives good foot rubs too.
I treasure the goodnight hug, thinking of a time when I may not be able to make my presence so known, so solid.
I’m still sad that medicine didn’t work for me…all of the kinds we tried, but I don’t spend so much time perseverating on all that now. It’s been in the blogs. It’s in the book that will come out after I’m gone. I hope that will make a difference for someone else, even just not to feel so lonely.
I reminisce. I can look through old pictures and family movies with more sweetness than sadness. I’ve had a good life. I don’t feel as though I wasted time. I don’t have many regrets. I just wanted more of this particular assignment, with these people.
And I imagine…
What it will feel like in the end.
Who will come to meet me.
What happens next.
How I’ll feel at the “review” of this life.
Whether I’ll get more chances at embodied life on Earth, or maybe a cleaner planet where there is no cancer.
If so, will I level up to help others? Is that even a thing? Some people and ancient texts swear by it.
Will I get to flit to Spain to see Sophie, Phili to see Grant, and back to Shaker to make sure Rocky is giving John as much love as he can, all in an instant?
I know the basics of what will happen to my physical body. That part interests me less (and sure, scares me more) than what will happen to my soul. Still, it’s good to be educated. To make choices while I still can. It helps to move through the fear.
I have always loved to travel. How could I not embrace this biggest trip of all? There are a lot of upsides…no packing, no worries about passports/ID/TSA, and leaving behind a body that did its best but has been challenged to the brink. It’s been strange eating solely for pleasure, leaving most of the supplements behind, and not pushing myself to walk/run/do yoga/keep up my muscles. Been there. Done that. Now is a time of rest. This trip requires peace, not last-minute leg-shaving, lists, and snacks. If we’ve been paying attention, we’ve had lots of invitations to prepare, all along the way. It’s a lifelong process. The biggest obstacle is fear. I don’t claim to be fearless, but I don’t spend all day crying or shaking in my boots. Hospice is here to help. I look forward to relief. There’s more evidence that this biggest trip of all is a beautiful one than a tortuous one (even if we weren’t all saints on earth).
So, I’m taking care of my soul. I’m getting ready for the trip. Not just on Sunday. Not just in prayer or meditation, but as my day job now. It’s quiet work but it’s not boring.
It’s the biggest adventure of all.