08 Oct One Month
It’s Monday Oct 7th, and tomorrow will be 4 weeks since my mother passed away. At this time, last month, I was in a car on the way to the airport in Tel Aviv. After 20 hours of travel I made it to my mother’s bedside in North Carolina with just two hours to spare before she passed away. It’s hard to believe that a month has passed since then, but it also feels like lifetimes ago.
I spent the past 15 years working on, and then distributing, “All The Rage“, a film about Dr. Sarno and his mind body approach to medicine. Given what I learned through that long process, I have been able to weather the stormy waters of my mother’s death with some ease. This doesn’t mean that I have been immune to sorrow, or to a physical response to that loss. However, I have had the tools of awareness that I need to navigate through the choppy surf. In all honesty, I have some work to do in relation to the emotional aspects of how it is affecting me, but the physical responses are more clear than they might have been, if not all that easily addressable. I was able to weather the difficulties of the loss fairly steadily for the first two weeks, but slowly my body has begun to ache and cramp, and I have felt increasingly unfocused. I’m trying to give myself the time and space I need while also being cautious about not falling too deeply into that hole called grief.
About two weeks after my mom passed my family went to NY on a scheduled visit. It was good to get away but my foot began to really bother me. I was doing a lot of walking and I found it increasingly difficult to get around, but I knew that it was also connected to the loss. Eventually I bought an ankle brace at a drug store. That helped ease my walking but my foot and ankle hurt more at night. Again, I was aware that the physical pain was connected to the stress of the loss; plus now that I’ve been gone from NY for 6 years it kind of overwhelms me when I’m there.
A few days after that trip, last Sunday, my band played a rock show at a venue called the Station. My mother had come to see us there a number of times so I was thinking about her quite a bit that day. She danced up front and made a minor spectacle of herself whenever she came despite the fact that she was a bit stooped and wobbly. I think she actually liked us. At those events I was aware of how this might have bothered me when I was younger, but I had come to love the way she embraced the world even if she looked nuts doing it. Our show on Sunday was an afternoon event that was part of a music festival and we were the second band on the bill at 2pm.
I spent my 20’s playing in a band and it was my primary avocation. I didn’t have a profession, I simply worked various jobs in order to be in a band and make art. By 1998 I was both burnt out, and had gotten burned by a friend I had started a band with. At that point I largely walked away from music for nearly 2 decades. Then in 2013 I moved from NY back in to the house I grew up In, and reconnected with friends from high school, A couple years later those friends and I got together to perform some Elvis covers at my brother’s wedding, and we kept it up. The band is more of a hobby than my band in the 90’s, but when we play live I give it my full focus. On this particularly Sunday I jumped, twisted, and shook. The responsibility I felt for playing like it was the most important show I’d ever played had to do with being connected to that ghost body of my mother’s, dancing in the front row. My eyes were closed for the most part but I felt her in that space. I played my heart out. I was a beast.
By that evening my neck hurt and my knee was killing me. The whole next week I was wildly stiff and sore. I knew that some of it had to do with the playing but that the real pain was coming from the complexity of my loss. This knowledge is such a mitzvah because it allows the pain to be something that helps me to pay attention to what I’m feeling rather than a distraction from it. If we respond to this pain with fear, then it not only distracts us from what we feel, it also leads to an increase in the pain. I went to yoga three times last week and each time it was a real challenge because my left knee was really bothering me, as was my neck and lower back. However, the solid attention that I was able to bring to calming myself in that space left me feeling wildly better each time. By my third visit on Saturday morning I was more able to hold the poses, but that meant that I was even more sore on Sunday. I’m slowly working my way out of that physical hole by pushing myself, but not too hard.
Last night I cleaned up my Shivah beard a little bit. When my father died I didn’t shave for a month. This time it’s been quite a bit longer because I didn’t shave on my trip before my mother died. The beard is a constant reminder of her loss, and I’m not sure I’ll shave it right away. Interestingly the one month anniversary of my mother’s death falls on the night before Yom Kippur when the fasting starts at sundown. I think I will fast on Tuesday night and Wednesday. I’m not very religious but I see the value in embracing ritual especially when it presents itself at the times that it’s needed. While I was in Israel a friend took me to the spiritual center of Kabbalah culture, Svat. While there we took a ritual bath, a mikvah. It was a minor event, but even as I did it I took it quite seriously. About 15 hours later I got the message from my wife that I needed to come home early from my trip because my mother was dying. I look forward to his fast.
Over the past decade I have spent a lot of time developing my writing skills. Often times I can crank out a post like this in 45 minutes. However, this one took all day and almost didn’t get done because my grief is slippery. It rarely feels strong, but it lurks, a lot, leaving me feeling less motivated, focused, or capable. It’s like a low grade fever or a mild depression.
I have about a dozen other posts started but I keep losing focus. Grief can be tricky for those who run from sadness. Thankfully my leg and my neck and my ankle keep reminding me to slow down, listen, and be with what’s going on. I’m not doing great at it, but I’m not beating myself up either. I’m committed to giving myself a break through this process, whatever this process may be. That includes going ahead and putting this up even if it doesn’t come close to expressing what I wanted it to.
What I really wanted it to be about was how important it is for the healthcare system to recognize a need for balancing mind and body. At that rock show we played last week I had a great talk with a doctor about how randomized control trials are deeply problematic because they simply ignore the complexity of how our emotions affect not only our health, but the trials themselves. His response was, “you’re right.” So, I hoped to weave together my own personal story and the more complex story of how systems make it so difficult to institute rational change. It is so out of balance that when I try to discuss the import of recognizing that everything that happens physically has an emotional component, the general response is that I am saying that everything is emotional rather than physical. This is not the case. Instead I’m saying that nothing that happens physically is disconnected from our emotional body- and to practice medicine this way is, to quote Dr Sarno, “malpractice generally practiced.” Not so artful, but relevant. I don’t think that this pain is all in my head. It’s in my ankle and my neck. However, I do know it’s connected to my grief, my loss, my sense of myself and my responsibilities. One of those responsibilities I feel that I have is to help others make this connection. For the moment, I’m gonna try to let that go, while secretly hoping that this post helps me to take care of that responsibility.