02 Oct Gently
I’m not too good at grief. My mom is extremely emotional, and though I take after her in many ways, I’m more like my father when it comes to being sad. Like him, I cry in movies, but I have a difficult time accessing my own emotions. When I was in high school I remember sitting in rickety pool chairs, in the front yard with him, working on a paper about Dylan Thomas’ “The Dying of the light”. Even though my father was a psychologist, he seemed to know an inordinate amount about classic literature. He recited the first few lines of Thomas’ poem to me when I told him what I was writing about.
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
He could tear apart a work like this on an intellectual level, and he really helped me to understand the poem that day, but I don’t think I felt it then like I do now. I was probably 17 and he would have been in his 50’s and I wasn’t thinking about his death, or anyone else’s.
A few months earlier, as I read the Great Gatsby on my living room floor, he spotted the cover and launched into a recitation of the final page of the book. The next week I made a greeting card in my graphic arts class, incorporating the last two paragraphs of that book as a gesture of respect for him. A couple of weeks ago, as I drove to pick up my daughter from gymnastics the books editor for NPR’s Fresh Air recited the same page. My father, as well as a hyper awareness of issues related to life and death, seem to have been following me around recently. I wish that he had heeded Dylan Thomas’ words, and perhaps raged a bit more strongly against the dying of the light. I miss him more each day and wish he was here to help me understand the increasingly tenuous divide between this world and that one.
A couple of Sundays ago I went with my wife to visit our friend, Letha, who was dying more slowly than my father had. He was hit by a car while trying to cross a busy road, and he died instantly. Over the previous couple of weeks Letha’s health had rapidly become less stable. She had a stroke, which was likely due to the cancer drugs she was taking, so the doctors took her off of them. At the same time she started to have a constant and persistent headache, so they increased her pain medication. Her cognitive abilities were increasingly compromised and it was hard to tell if it was from the pain meds, from the stroke, or the cancer that had spread to her brain. As she was no longer taking the cancer drugs to slow the progress of her disease, she had entered into hospice the previous Friday. In other words, the doctors had determined that they had no more medical treatments that they could do to save her life from the cancer that was growing in her body. The hospice nurses would instead try to keep her as comfortable as possible, and out of the hospital until she passed away. This process was extremely hard to wrap our heads around, especially for her husband Dan. It was very unclear what could be expected from the nurses in terms of care, and daunting to imagine what the next few weeks would bring.
Dan had been carrying the burden of her care for a long time, and it has been extremely hard on him. My wife, Suki, had been visiting with Letha at least once a week for the previous year. Over the last few weeks, as her health had declined, Suki had been going more often. I very much wanted to see Letha that day but I was ready to defer to both of them as to whether or not it was a good idea for me to visit with her. She was not doing well when we arrived so I helped my wife clean up and then tried to simply meditate in the living room while she went in her room to sit with her.
I have recently been reading, “A New Earth”, by Eckhart Tolle. It has helped me to get a better understanding of the idea that the planning mind, which chatters away in our heads, is not our consciousness. Instead, as Tolle points out, the consciousness of the chatter, rather than the chatter itself, is our true consciousness. The more present, aware, and observant that we are of this process, the more present we can be in general. As I sat and waited I was more at peace in the situation than I might previously have felt.
I had started reading “A New Earth” a couple of weeks earlier while travelling to a small family gathering with my mother and my daughter. My mother is an anxious person. However, in the last few years she has been doing mindfulness mediation practice and has slowly but steadily become calmer. I was nervous about the trip, but as I read the first 80 pages of the book, I began to emotionally understand how I might respond to my mother’s anxiety with empathy rather than responsibility. I use the word “emotionally” because I had understood the concept on an intellectual level for a long time, but as I read the book I came to feel like I could actually do it. I had the sense that the trip would be all right, and it was.
Our relationship has improved a great deal since then, and I have been able to access that same feeling of empathy in an increasing number of situations. As much as I wanted to see my friend that Sunday, and to be with her, I was also very conscious of the idea that I needed to be aware of what she and her husband needed. There was something about her passage towards death that had made me very aware of my father and his own slowly increasingly ill health, as well the eventual violence of his death. As I sat in the living room I thought about him and the struggles he faced.
My father suffered from a long string of ailments that have a powerful mind body connection. When I was a young child he almost died of a bleeding ucler twice. When he recovered from that he got whiplash after a small fender bender. A few years later he read Dr. Sarno’s book “Healing Back Pain”, and recognized that his whiplash had a lot to do with his repressed emotions. He improved dramatically and often shared the book with others. He wasn’t 100% symptom free, but he was vastly improved. However, after he retired he began to have more persistent pain, and started to show signs of rheumatoid arthritis and ALS, though he was never conclusively diagnosed with either. He tried to focus on the role of his emotions, and he did yoga and went to the gym. Unfortunately, the symptoms continued to worsen.
Given his limited mobility and coordination, he should have been more careful when he crossed the busy highway in January of 2006. I am emotionally haunted by the violent impact of his death. I also feel that we are quite literally haunted by his spirit and I have had the sense that he is stuck, both in the moment of impact and the place that it happened. Until recently I had no idea of how I might help him. I have repeatedly gone to the site of the accident to try to make peace with the situation, but I have never had a sense that I understood how to do this. In all honesty, I struggle with the thought that perhaps, the downward spiral of pain and discomfort that he had entered was too much for him to bear, and that perhaps he no longer had the energy to rage against the light.
This experience, of my father’s sudden, and unexpected, death, colored my view of my friend’s hospice situation. I looked at it as an opportunity for her to move as gracefully as possible out of life. I don’t believe in anything like the structured heaven and hell of Dante’s inferno. However, I do believe that consciousness doesn’t simply get extinguished when we die. Beyond that I don’t have much to offer. My sense is that it is an experience that is beyond words, and that words only get in the way of understanding what that might be.
Letha is such a special person. She is an artist of unrecognized skill and talent, and she’s been a source of profound emotional support for me as an artist. We recently moved to my hometown, in large part to be closer to her as she dealt with her cancer. Last fall we helped her put together a show of her artwork. Most of it had been made and stuck under her bed because she was compelled to make it but less interested in the process of promoting it, or herself. The work is tremendous, nuanced, and rich with ideas, and it felt necessary to help her bring it into the light. She makes collages with both sound and image. Her sound collages have come out on record to some acclaim recently. But her visual collages, patching together complex stories that hint at, and open up doors to greater meaning, had not ever been seen. In some sense their openness makes her a collaborator with whoever interacts with the work. Her true self seems lost in the sound and images, hiding behind one face, while peeking out from behind another. The show was a fantastic success and the process seemed to help her health a good deal. As we put together the show we made a short film about her and her work that you can see here.
While the drugs she had been taking to fight the cancer had been fairly potent, they have also caused problems, like the stroke she had last month. In addition she couldn’t go out in the sun or she would get extreme sunburn. As the illness spread and the pain increased it becomes more difficult for her to expend the energy needed to engage with others. Knowing this, I waited to see if her husband and my wife felt like it would be ok for me to visit. I really just wanted to hold her hand and tell her how much I love her. It was not to be though, and after a bit we left to go get our girls who were playing at a friend’s house.
In the years before my father died he and I talked at least once a week, often more. However, I was not so close to my mother. I talked to her and got along with her well enough, but we did not communicate in as meaningful a way. While she has always been extremely supportive of me as an artist and a person, we often clashed about inconsequential things. She can be hard headed, as can I, so sometimes it was difficult for us to let go of small slights. However, when my father died, I stepped into his role and took care of things related to the funeral, which meant I had to work closely with my mother. She was a bit of an emotional wreck, so I shut down for the most part and did what I could to support her. In truth, I welcomed the role because it gave me a valid excuse for not being present with my own sense of grief. “I’ll deal with that later,” I thought, knowing that it was not true. There was little emotional space for me to challenger her, so I simply accepted whatever she needed me of me.
Slowly we began to connect more directly, but we still struggled. I would try to do what she wanted, and I would force down my own feelings, and eventually explode with anger. Most of that anger was directed inward and I would find myself shaking uncontrollably on the floor. It’s embarrassing to think about, but it happened every few months, mostly when she was being irrational. One time she called to yell at me because, after she had fallen twice in a month due to an unrecognized thyroid problem, I had dared to call the doctor to make sure he thought it was Ok for her to drive. After talking to her for over an hour, trying to explain why I still felt that it was reasonable for me to have called him, I got so frustrated that I bent the phone so hard it almost broke into pieces. Sometimes, those of us who repress our emotions, boil over.
Last year, 7 years after my father passed away, she finally decided to move out of the house we were raised in, and move to a retirement community in town. My wife and I had considered taking over her house for a couple of years, but we were unsure how we would handle the move. Our life was in Brooklyn, but the city was taking a toll on our kids. Eventually we decided to give it a try for a number of reasons, one of which was being close to Letha. It was hard for us to separate from our community, but our kids are thriving, so we are kind of stuck here. In the year that we have been here the peace has grown on me as well.
After leaving Letha’s that afternoon we had to meet my mother for dinner. As we were getting in the car, I got a message from a friend, Hamish, letting me know that he was in town. Hamish is a musician that I was expecting the next day, as he was coming through on tour. They had arrived early so I quickly arranged to pick him up and bring him along to dinner.
We had a good meal with my mom, and went back home where we stayed up late talking about Letha, Hamish’s relationship issues, and my father’s death. I explained to him that a few weeks earlier, in the days surrounding what would have been my father’s 80’s birthday, we experienced a series of mechanical/electronic blow-outs. In a one week period, our air conditioner had gone on the fritz, lightning hit the house and blew up our TV and DVD player, the dishwasher had died, the radiator in our car had cracked, and the roof started to leak like crazy. I told Hamish that all this led me to believe that my father is not settled and that I believed that he was responsible in some way for this mayhem. There has been a history of odd connections to my father that I won’t go into here, but suffice it to say that there is a lot of weirdness around him and his passing [update on the weirdness below **]. In fact the day after we scattered his ashes at the beach, my wife, who watched the kids while my brother, sister, and mother scattered the ashes, was packing the car to leave. A piece of paper was whipping around the parking lot in the wind and it hit her in the foot several times. When she finally picked it up she saw it was his cremation certificate.
Despite the fact that next day was going to be the first day of the new school year we ended up staying up till about 1. At 3 in the morning the power went out with a bang, waking the girls. I could see some street lights on so I went outside to check it out. Only the transformer that serves our house as well as two others had gone out. I knew this because it was the same transformer that had been hit by lightning a few weeks earlier, causing the TV to blow out. We didn’t get too much sleep after that, so after getting the kids off to school I decided to go back to bed. I told Hamish about what had happened with the power, and he said that he wasn’t surprised, as he had felt a really powerful energy in the house all night. I hadn’t made the connection between my father and this power outage but after he said it, it made sense to me.
When I woke up I found that Hamish had gathered a lot of plants from around the house in order to facilitate doing some kind of ritual at the site of my father’s accident. I had discussed walking down there with him but he’d read my mind in regards to doing a ritual. I’ve been thinking a lot about rituals recently, and how they function. A few days ago I wrote about doing EFT before meditating and how I felt that performing this ritual had been beneficial to me. As a natural skeptic I have been dismissive of organized religion, but I have been exploring the value of ritual in relation to mind body interaction, belief, and faith. In some sense, Hamish’s openness and belief in spiritual energy gave me a kind of permission to fully embrace the idea of performing a ritual to bring peace to my father. I think that without him it might have been hard for me to move past my skeptical feelings.
Before heading out, Hamish suggested that we circle the house. I gathered up some things that I thought he would feel connected to and then I suggested that we meditate at the site behind the house where we had scattered some of his ashes. While sitting there I was very aware of the birds that were calling to each other. I thought about the way in which birds are often depicted as messengers from the spirit world. I looked over to Hamish and said, “Bird is the word”, referring to the idea that they are communicators. I then reached down and started to tug on a vine that was growing where we sat. Soon 15 or 20 feet were coiled up, and Hamish and I yanked the rest from the ground. I coiled them up, and they formed an infinity symbol. Just as we were about to head out my mom pulled up to drop off some food. I didn’t tell her what we were planning to do because it felt a little silly, and I didn’t feel like trying to explain it. I grabbed a few more things that I thought he might be connected to and we headed out.
Usually when I went down to the site of the crash I stood near the stoplight where the impact had happened. However, this day I felt like we should be closer to where the car had stopped, because even though I was told he had died on impact, I had a sense that his spirit, or consciousness, had not left at that instant, but instead where the car had come to rest. There’s a sidewalk on the side of the road protected by a big metal barrier. It’s almost never used, as it’s so close to the highway, and really only connects two neighborhoods. We took a seat and I laid down the impromptu wreath that Hamish had put together along with the vine I had pulled from behind the house. We sat quietly for a bit. It was loud because the cars were whizzing by. I was immediately aware of the fact that it wasn’t a restful place to be. I can’t remember what I said, but I do remember that the words came to me in a slow and steady fashion, and that I knew what to say without thinking about it. When I got there I hoped to talk to him about letting go; about moving on to the next world. However, as my thoughts wound down I realized that he needed to come home with us. I asked him to come into the vine that I had brought, and that we would bring him home. It feels odd to type this, but it felt completely reasonable at the time, and in all honesty, it still does.
As we walked away I felt settled. Though it felt like I should be, I was not struck by any powerful feelings. However, I had a deep sense of calm, as well as the very clear sense that things would be better at the house. On the way we saw an older neighbor of mine who probably needs more care than she gets. She was outside taking care of her yard, and I helped her cut down a few branches. In some sense communicating with her felt a bit like communicating with Letha. She did more pointing and smiling than she did talking.
When we got home, we put the vine back near the site of his ashes. As I laid it down an unfamiliar bird started chattering like crazy. We looked at each other and laughed. That night Hamish’s band played a show in town. It was an amazing event. I’ve known Hamish for about 25 years, ever since he first came to New York from New Zealand. He happened into a show my band was playing at the Pyramid club, and we were covering a song by his band “The Clean”. However, this was the first time I was ever seeing his band, and it was energizing and exciting. We were up late, and when we woke up early the next morning, Hamish immediately commented that the energy in the house that night was completely different. It was calmer, and settled. He was right.
That week my wife visited Letha a couple of times. She was still eating ok, but her cognitive abilities were spotty. Her pain wasn’t as bad as it had been but she needed constant care nonetheless. The Hospice people got her a hospital bed that they put in the living room. The following weekend I was able to accompany Suki on a visit. Her Husband’s mother had come to help out and Suki and I sat with Letha as they went shopping. She wasn’t able to carry on a conversation, but she was able to say a few things. Her bird Glen wanted to be close to her and he came to rest on my shoulder a few times. I held her hand and tried to just be there. I tried not to engage her because that seemed to tire her out a great deal. I didn’t see Letha again, but as her health deteriorated Suki went over more often. In her last week she was there almost every day.
When Suki went to visit a couple of days before she passed, Letha acknowledged her with here eyes once, but then she rested. Her bird Glen sat vigil with her, refusing to leave her side. On Wednesday Suki was scheduled to go again, but Letha’s husband told her not to come. Her breathing had become labored, so he had called the hospice people to take her to their facility. Our kids had a day off from school the following day so they were allowed to stay up a little late to watch a movie that night. Just before 9 o’clock Suki went to lay down. We’d gotten kittens a week earlier, and they gravitated towards her in the bed. At around 10 she got up to put our youngest daughter to bed. At 10:30 she got a message from Letha’s husband saying that she had passed away.
I don’t really know how to process grief yet. I’m too young and too old at the same time. I should know better, but I also haven’t had enough experience with it. I do have the sense though, that Letha was ready to go. She’d been planning for it for a long time. She wanted to live with a fierceness, but she also held on so long that I think she was ready when it was time. I am sad, but I’m also aware that dying is a part of life.
update on weirdness **
I thought I had written about some of the weirdness that followed my father’s death, especially at the site of his accident. I wrote one piece about a strange occurrence that happened as I neared the intersection when a car came crashing into the guardrail above my head. However, I can’t seem to find the piece about the craziest thing that happened. I think that I never posted it because it was just too weird.
A lot of humans think about the divide between life and death. We weave wonderous stories about the details of the afterlife, and often think of our actions on Earth in relation to how they might affect our further journeys. My father was deeply cynical about religion and I became a religious studies major in college by accident because I was interested in the connection between religion and society as well as humanness and spirituality. It wasn’t a very practical major because I had no intention of going into academia. Still, the things I learned have helped me immeasurably in terms of broadening my ability to ponder that space on the other side of life..between birth and death.
A couple of years ago we went to visit my sister on her 50th birthday. She was a bit freaked out about turning 50 and when it came time to blow out the candles she loudly proclaimed that she wasn’t 50 yet. She hadn’t been born until just before 10 O’Clock. We went home pretty early because the kids had school the next day and I was leaving for Denver to go to a film festival. When we got home I sat down to try and fix my iphone. The camera had stopped working the day before and i do a lot of photography with my phone. As I waited for the software to finish reinstalling I checked my email and saw that someone in our neighborhood was giving away an ipod. I quickly wrote to her and she said it was mine for the taking. She was going to bed early but she said she’d leave it outside the kitchen door. At about 9pm I wanted to head out and get it but my older daughter didn’t want me to leave until her mom came out from putting her sister to bed. Finally about 9:40 I headed out on a walk to pick up the phone.
My sister is very interested in numbers and signs. When I had arrived at her house earlier that evening she took me outside to see a couple of license plates in her neighborhood. One said “Dadsgrl”- which is how she saw her self- and another one had her date of birth. It spelled out a couple of letters and then the numbers 9964 and she was born on 9/9 1964.
As I walked through my neighborhood on my way to pick up the ipod I was thinking about how strange it was that those messages had appeared to her on her birthday. About halfway to my destination I pulled up the email about the ipod in order to get the exact address and then entered into the maps app to find the exact location. I was a little bit shocked to find that it was on the corner where my father had been hit by the car 8 and half years earlier.
As I got closer I realized that I was getting to the location of his death at the time of my sister’s birth. The hairs on my arms and the back of my neck stood up straight as I realized this. At the top of this note I pointed out that a car had nearly come crashing down on me at this spot about 6 months earlier. If it hadn’t hit the rail it would have come tumbling down on top of me. There were a lot of other strange things that had happened that felt dangerous and I started to wonder if something else bad might happen. Two years after my father passed away we were at the beach near where we had put his ashes in the ocean the previous summer. It was very windy and a bedroom door slammed on my mother’s arm breaking it. The previous year, after putting his ashes in the ocean a piece of paper chased my wife around the parking lot. While it was being whipped around by the wind it repeatedly skimmed her feet. When she finally picked it up she found his cremation certificate. She hadn’t joined us on the beach for the ceremony. It was odd enough that the paper had somehow made it from the trashcan on the beach to the parking lot 300 meters away, but it also seemed to chase her. There were a lot of strange, yet explainable, things that happened in relation to him. This is why we had performed the described above just a few week earlier. So I really didn’t know what to expect.
When I got to the house I made my way to the kitchen door under the carport. I was unable to find the ipod. Instead there was a bag filled with cookies stuck on the handle of the screen door. I poked around for a while and then decided to get out of there. My heart was speeding like a race horse. I don’t know exactly what I was afraid of, but I only calmed down when I got about a quarter mile away. I wondered if my dad was somehow punking me. He hated it when I took his picture and one time he chased me around the house screaming at me because I snapped an image of him reading the paper without his permission. I ended up making a collage out of all of the blurry images of him chasing me. I would have to travel the next day without the camera on my phone. I also wondered if there was some message about space and time to be discerned. What was the connection between the place of his death with the time of her birth?
I was thinking about him, and the anniversary of his death this morning when facebook alerted me that today would have been Letha’s birthday. Is there meaning in the connection between his death and her birth? I have no idea, but for me it creates some sense of connection between this world and that other mysterious place that exists outside of our conception of time and space. Today I am trying to think about the “pratfalls and foibles” of this world and spending some time accepting the idea that we shall never know what is to come. I miss my father but I also know that in many ways I am my father. I know that he did the best that he could do, even when he fucked up royally. I’ll keep on working to figure out where he went wrong, not to blame him, but to learn from his mistakes so that I can continue to do as well as he did, or better, in order to do what I can to ensure that my kids do even better than me.