Is She There? Departure and New Complexities... then Retreat
2010 July - August
Created by Tom on 08/05/2010
Monday, August 2, 2010
Friday was busy, on 3 hours sleep. After sending the last update at 3am, I spent some time lying next to Karen's increasingly cold body trying to sleep, with only limited success, till a little after 6 am when I was awakened by a phone call.
After the call I tried to talk to Karen, which ended up being surprisingly confusing. I expected it to be easy, even if perhaps one-way, but I ran up against the fact that I am not one of those people who believes in a single story about what happens when someone dies.
God/dess knows, different people believe different stories: For example, that the dead person simply doesn't exist anymore, or they go to heaven (or one of the heavens, or hell), or they float as a free spirit above their body, or they go through a tunnel leading to a loving light, or they reincarnate as a new baby (human, dog, whatever) somewhere, or they go to a between-lives realm to reconnect with their teammates and get further training and new assignments, or they merge with nature or with cosmic consciousness and cease to exist as a separate soul, or they shift to an alternate reality, or, as some Buddhists believe, they were never a separate person in the first place, or, or, or.... On top of this, there are often diverse versions of each of these stories (for example, it's karma... or a person's choice... or the luck of the draw... or one's level of consciousness... that decides how and where one will reincarnate).
I have for many years been intrigued by the existence and role of (and various evidences for) each of these narratives. My inclusive, open perspective about this has served me well in my intellectual life and relationships (since I have known people who believe virtually all of those different stories and that fact has not separated me from them at all).
However, now that I found myself in this real-life personal circumstance trying to communicate heart-felt things to my dead partner, it suddenly proved awkward to talk to her. I realized that I believed no story thoroughly enough that I could feel confident she was actually there to hear me -- NOR did I believe any alternate story thoroughly enough that I could feel confident that she WASN'T there, so that I could easily let go of trying to communicate to her. I longed for an old certainty from my past where I simply believed in the "free spirit outside the body" narrative; in that narrative it makes total sense to talk to the spirit hovering over the body in the room.
But Friday morning, as I stumbled along sort of communicating and sort of not, spinning in confusion, I wondered: Is one part of me splitting off to talk to another part of me? Is this just all projection? Has she already gone wherever she's going and I'm talking to an empty room? Has her spirit merged with a larger reality and my words are lost in the vastness of that? Is this whole thing futile, if not foolish? It was unsettling and disorienting, to say the least, and it hasn't really resolved even now -- although I today wondered about the possibility of writing a poem or song or letter to her, and am fascinated by how that approach sort of moves beyond the whole issue.
Although I returned several times to this attempt to communicate verbally, and took a picture of her face from the front, I finally pulled myself together to attend to urgent logistical business at hand. This included calling the environmentally responsible mortuary that Cynthia Beal had referred us to, engaging with several people online, on the phone and in person who wanted to express their caring for Karen or offer help, arranging for help moving Karen's stuff, and actually sorting, organizing and packing her stuff for transfer to her apartment and Walnut St. Co-op. This last activity took much longer than I expected, both because people kept showing up wanting to engage and because I was sorting her and my possessions to make it easier to deal with them in the future. In the midst of all this the mortuary men came and very respectfully wrapped her in a white plastic bag and then in a purple cloth (one of her favorite colors) and then wheeled her out on a gurney. I arranged with them to probably wait until Friday for the cremation, the latest that they are allowed. They said they had a place to view the cremation (whatever that means, but I will probably do that with any others who wish to participate, and breathe her deeply as she becomes ashes and, mostly, air).
Tim Walker, who is a green building contractor, offered to take me with Karen's stuff in his truck. As our rendezvous time approached and I had barely started packing, I called him to tell him to wait. Even when he arrived I was still only about 70 percent done. He helped out and, with some poignant farewells to staff at the nursing home, we left around 3 or 4 pm (I was sufficiently rushed and focused that I didn't even notice the time).
As we drove, I talked with Tim (who happens to be an exceptionally good and energetic listener) about all the thoughts and feelings I'd been having, about all the dimensions of this experience -- from the story we've been living through (as represented by these updates), to what we experienced about the health care system; from the implications of companioning Karen rather than doing my world-work to the many after-death narratives (noted above); from the tension between "being versus doing" in caregiving and recovery to the diverse dimensions of letting go; from issues about love, support, community, and relationship to assumptions about how one should respond to death to the vast amounts spent on avoiding death, and on and on....
At one point I said to Tim, "It seems I am someone who makes very complicated something that most people see as relatively simple, albeit heart-rending and scary." As I said that, I realized that the multi-dimensionality, systems thinking, holistic perspectives, etc., that I bring to this experience could, if articulated, become my version of Ken Wilber's "Grace and Grit" -- a story of participating in a loved one's illness, dying, and death, seen through one's own unique perspective that might be of use to others.
In the days since, I've made many notes about this "complexity." I've thought of titles for such a book, and noticed how it seemed to compete with my earlier (and still strong) desire to write a book on wholeness (which I suspect would be much less popular than the book about death and dying!). I thought about trying to write the death-and-dying book in a way that it embodied and communicated my ideas about wholeness -- a real but not impossible challenge. Most recently I've decided I will start a blog where I can post my thoughts on all this and people can comment on them -- possibly called "Dying Highlights: Issues, Insights, and Inquiries that have arisen in my personal encounters with death and dying" [I ended up calling it Death Matters at deathmatters.wordpress.com] -- which would include but potentially go beyond these last four months with Karen. I will let you know if and when I do this. It would record and develop ideas on the subject which could later be organized into a book, if that's what I end up wanting to do.
After Tim and I delivered our truckload of Karen's and my stuff to its various locations, Tim dropped me off at the home of Liza Robbins and Warren Salinger for several days of retreat. There (here, actually) I basically have my own room, bathroom, and deck under the trees, and can use their kitchen as needed. It has been a remarkable blessing, although I'm not using it in the ways one would normally imagine such a retreat unfolding. Most notably, I have meditated and grieved very little, and the long walks I've taken were more for exercise (it is very hilly) than for spacing out and reflection. I have been basically following what my body-mind wants to do at any given moment, while setting aside the various judgments that arise in me about that. I have slept a lot (although not last night), stayed well hydrated, and took a couple of hot baths. I made a photo-montage with pictures of Karen, with the death-mask picture in the middle, surrounded by many pictures of her being really alive in her special way. (I would attach the montage except I think many people might find the death mask disturbing. If you'd like to see the whole montage, write to me.) I have watched a number of videos (movies, music, comedy) and read many articles from an old Buddhist magazine (very enlightening) as well as several books of jokes and cartoons. I have eaten a number of delicious meals (supplemented with vitamins B and C) and had a couple of stimulating dinner conversations with Warren (who has largely let me be alone; Liza was in the Bay Area with relatives until noon Monday). I've started a memorial website for Karen where we can all post our pictures, stories, and thoughts about her life and spirit; it should be available for your use by Wednesday, and I'll send you an alert when it is (actually it may have just opened up as I wrote this: it's not all set up yet but check out
http://karen.mercer.muchloved.com; I think you can contribute your own thoughts, stories, etc., to it now). I have been in touch with a number of you on phone and email, sometimes extensively. And I have thought and felt, thought and felt, thought and felt -- and watched myself think, feel, and do...
The complexity and multi-dimensionality of this experience exceeds practically anything I can recall. My awareness and behavior since Karen died has felt delicately balanced amidst deep confusion. The balance comes from watching myself, but what I'm watching is me behaving in ways that are quite out of character (like watching movies when I could be writing, or feeling guilty for doing so) and feeling in ways that don't fit common expectations (I have only cried a few times. Am I suppressing my grief? it doesn't FEEL like denial, but is that for me to say?) -- which is confusing. I am basically letting myself be however I am being without sticking myself in any particular box about what that means, or even what it IS in any given instance, and sensing into the many overtones and undertows that are going on around whatever I seem to be doing, thinking or feeling at any given time. It is its own sloppy form of meditation, I guess, of being mindful of What Is, no matter how messy that may be. But it isn't meditation in the sense of finding serenity or centeredness, although it is being present with a troubled kind of stretching that has been going on for months. I keep telling myself (and others tell me) that I will be dealing with the inner and outer dimensions of Karen's death for weeks, months, even years into the future; it has only just begun.
A part of that beginning is my new experience of a Karen-sized hole in my life. One manifestation of that is this: There is now an emptiness where the person used to be who received my sharings of so many delightful things I came across in life. I see flowers along the road on my walks, that I would pick as a bouquet for Karen, but she's not there. I see articles and videos online that I would share with Karen, but she's not there. I have videos of movies I would watch with Karen, but she's not there. I have realizations about life that I would love to share with Karen, but she's not there. I find the impulse to share-or-give-the-gift arising in me repeatedly every day -- and it instantly and poignantly gets hung up on the fact that she's not here. Each impulse hangs in my world for a few minutes and then drops with a kind of "thud". I watch it, and sometimes wonder if and how I should or will fill this need-to-share, which was such a free-flowing part of my daily life with Karen for so many years.
I am sure this is only the beginning of my experiences of "the hole in my life." This morning I found myself wondering about the metaphor of a four-wheeled car that loses a wheel. The whole thing becomes unstable, even though it might be able to still move forward with care and rebalancing luggage if the road is not too rough. If the car is my life and the two front wheels are me and Karen and the back wheels are my world-work and everything else (which is probably the way I'd divide it up; others might do it differently), I can feel the pull to replace the Karen-wheel with another relationship to regain balance. However, there is another alternative: Move the "me" wheel into the center, (get my center back through meditation, self-care, discipline, etc.) so my life becomes a three-wheeled vehicle. To the extent I am very centered, the car of my life becomes stable again. (Here I remind myself: All metaphors are limited and potentially dangerous; some are useful.)
I am poised between Karen and no-Karen, between old patterns and a mysterious future, between memory and possibility. There is much to keep me busy (especially handling Karen's stuff before August is over, if I'm to avoid paying $500 rent on her apartment), much to think and feel, much to watch and notice, much to share and become part of. But right now there is just being in the moment, accepting that the process is whatever it is, and trusting that Life will have its way with me in some way that adds up to more Life.
Blessings on the Journey and the community of remarkable people who have been so willing, appreciative, and supportive in sharing this journey that Karen and I have been on for these last 16 weeks.
PS: Karen had a very intimate relationship with spiral bound notebooks, of which I have hundreds from past years. They are probably the most challenging of her possessions to figure out what to do with. Her writing in these is not always legible AND these are not diaries, per se. Karen processed life, news, and conversations through her notebooks (she'd often stop me mid-conversation to make notes). Often she'd read and reflect on her notes later, but often she'd never do anything with them again; the act of writing, itself, was a form of learning/processing/absorbing what was being said or done, felt and thought, in and around her. Although they are so random and often illegible, these are some of the most intimate Karen-connected, Karen-expressive artifacts of her life, if at the same time somewhat mysterious. If Karen were Leonardo, these would be worth millions of dollars and be pored over by scholars. But she isn't Leonardo, and there isn't adequate space in the co-op to store them and I doubt I would be doing much with them.
In a conversation just now with one of Karen's good friends who shares some of Karen's spirituality and has done a lot of death-and-dying work (largely with AIDS in SF), she noted that offering such things to fire (ritually burning them) is a properly respectful way to give the energy in them back into the larger world now inhabited by the substance and spirit of the person who died -- sort of like distributing ashes.
Several things came to mind: Of course, if any of you could make use of (or otherwise want) Karen's notebooks as they exist now, let me know. If not, I think I will put some of them with her body to be cremated and save the rest for winter or some other time when they can be ritually burned in a fire. If you would want one or two of them to do the same with, or simply to keep as a momento of her life and aliveness, let me know (her handwriting is very expressive of her personality, and you might enjoy having a sample).
At a purely material level, the appropriate thing to do would seem to be to recycle them, but I can't bring myself to (to me) desecrate them in that way.
Feel free to let me know what you think about this and what you'd personally like regarding them, if anything. You can also feel free to ignore this email -- a response I'm imagining will be appropriate for 90+ percent of you.