Note: BWIWD = Back When I Was Dying. See posts December 9-12. I will collect the series into an E-Book when done.
THE PERSONAL CONTEXT OF MY DISCOVERY, Part 1
Despite the convolutions of a culture that goes to such extremes to avoid and deny, and failing that, to minimize and medicalize death; despite the conditioning that torques our natural responses to both death and each other into stereotyped caricatures of caring, at some point in our evolutionary journey each of us is destined to realize that in reality we do experience what we can call “true love.” That we have always lived in love, and that we always will. Love is the ground of all our longings and imaginings. Love is the call of our soul that opens us to the universe.
Love is. Love is what is.
Love holds us in its nourishing embrace.
I speak from experience. My descent into grief after my husband Jeffrey’s sudden death in 2003 had the paradoxical effect of opening me into the realm of all-encompassing Love. Just prior to his death we had moved 1500 miles away from family and friends. His fatal heart attack left me alone and bereft in a new town. Rather than moving back to be with family or friends, I recognized my aloneness as a rare and privileged opportunity to consciously surrender, for a full year and without interruption, to the rich humus of my grief.
It was in so doing, that I unexpectedly encountered its opposite: exaltation. In my solitude, I grew acutely sensitive to subtle, inner dimensions. My interior life, fully acknowledged, plunged me into the heart of being. As a result of that one exquisite, bittersweet year I now know, with every fiber of my being, that what we call “love” on Earth is but a tiny taste of Love’s infinite abundance. And again paradoxically, I realized through grieving Jeff’s death, that my love for him was and is but substitute and mask for the unconditional Love that powers the universe and steers the stars. Love is the invisible substratum of Being, so full and rich that we can only barely apprehend just how precious we are, how tenderly we are held. Love is Reality. Love is the Oneness that includes all of creation and from which we can never be spared.
With this expansion of perspective not only is there no separation from others, there is no death either, if what we mean by “death” is annihilation.
Yet is difficult to talk about “love” without sounding maudlin or sentimental. I have no way to convey how profoundly, and how surely, with no hesitation — and certainly no regret! — my journey through the turbulent currents of grief, when fully felt and honored, moved me below its wild, inconsolable howl into what I can only call the numinous. Love warmed me, like the Sun; Love plunged me into its oceanic depths within which, like surface waves, forms appear and disappear.
I suspect that my unusual openness to fully processing grief after my husband died prepared me, just over five years later, to easily and naturally accept that I was dying. As I had encountered his death from behind, now, for a few short days I was moving towards my own death; and from both sides of death — looking forward, looking back — I stumbled into this vast, spacious, utterly mysterious and fluid medium that seeks to flood through us all and from which only our thinking seems to estrange us.
I realize that this mystical intimation that pervades my being like blood and bone and refuses to depart is a far cry from a discussion of the kinds of behaviors that tend to operate in a culture where fear of death rules. Yet I cannot help but talk like this. For I have landed in the ground of being, and I know: love and fear do not occupy the same space. Nature abhors a vacuum. When the illusion of fear disappears, Love’s presence pulsates, buzzes, a kind of liquid surround sound.
This Love that powers the life force has been here all along, and yet we, in our silliness and myopia and despair, have either ignored or sentimentalized Love into romance, or more “heavenly,” into winged, haloed angels and the gentle oblivion of a good parent God or Goddess.
I feel for all of us who are caught up in this culture’s terror of aging, death and dying. I feel especially for those who are dying and must interact with others who are not — yet. For as the dying person moves towards departure, he or she does tend to undergo a profound transformation. The forced intimacy with mortality throws new light on former preoccupations, including attachments to those we love the most. The dying process is our final, climactic initiation, dissolving the ego into dimensions too subtle and powerful for the rest of us to follow or understand. The crack between worlds widens, invites, ultimately swallows the one whose time has come.
Given that the two states of being — fully engaged living and disengaged dying — are incommensurable, and given the fear of death that saturates this culture, it’s no wonder that the strategies for dealing with the disjunction that opens up between the one who is dying and his or her loved ones can seem convoluted and strange. George’s wife holed up until she was prepared to die. That woman I heard about second-hand never did tell her sister of her cancer scare. My sister Mary refuses to be thought of as ill, and engages with life more than most of us who are healthy. And Shauna kept up her ravaging chemo treatments so that she wouldn’t upset her friends.
I have mentioned these examples to show, given the contradictions and complications of living in a culture that denies and defies the so-called “death” to which we are all heading, just how various are the responses to others of those who appear to be in the final stages of this embodied life.
And I mention them in an attempt to describe clearly how, though they differ from one another, these responses are still enculturated, in contrast to my own. My response also differed from the standard cultural response, and that is to see one’s disease as the enemy and one’s fight for life as a war.
Underneath the medicalization of disease and death and dying, is the even deeper tragedy of militarization.
For most people in our culture, unless they are very old and/or unusually philosophical, when facing a just-diagnosed terminal illness sooner or later move from initial shock into attack mode. They marshal will, intelligence, resources, family and friends to “fight” the “threat” and “save” their life. Their battle, whether or not it heals their disease, usually stimulates people to rally around them, and thus creates or enhances community.
So for me to decide not to fight — and especially not to fight “this early in the game,” while I was still apparently healthy, and not that old; why would I want to “give up”? was I suicidal? — was to court my own community’s rejection — or at least their terror and anguish. I knew this, and went ahead anyway.
Then, being a truth-telling Sagittarian, I decided to inform family and close friends of my situation and my decision — and work with each one individually to help him or her accept it.
When confronted with terminal disease, I leaped high over Kubler-Ross’s first four stages of dying — Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression — and landed with both feet on the ground of the fifth stage, Acceptance. The discovery that I was dying, encountering no obstacles, shoved straight through into the interior where oneness resides.
Dying? No problem. Just another door — the most mysterious door of all — long closed, now opening.
I wanted not only to accept it, but I wanted my community to accept it along with me.