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May 07, 2008


I think you're on a marvelous track. You're wrestling with the work we all need to do and people either accept or ignore the task. We can't expect it to be a pretty process, we can only hope that it's done with integrity.

Are we alone in this? At bottom I believe we are. Yet, it seems that by truly accepting my aloneness, I'm finally in a position to understand the One. (and to discover I wasn't at the bottom afterall)

I also think that I haven't the sense to request all the blessings Life bestowes, nor to understand or even recognize some blessings as they arrive. The best I can hope for, and here's a practice straight from E. Tolle, is to accept what life presents "as if you had requested it."

With apologies for all the words!

My mother died a year ago after living with us for seven years, and being difficult at best. I'm just really getting over the exhaustion and finding my way back into my own life. Aging and death of a parent simply reminds us of our own mortality. It is part of our lives, part of the suffering we mortals must go through. I have learned that as a care taker, I need to take care of myself first before I can care for anyone else. For me that means accepting who I am and how I feel in the moment. Life throws a lot of "stuff" (add any nasty word you'd like) at us but it is what it is .... life. Most of the time I rather enjoy it.

Though I always read, I don't always comment. At this point in my life, with healthy, hardy parents in their early sixties and all of my children still at home, the kinds of challenges you have been struggling with are pretty foreign to me. Actually, even my grandparents are still living, relatively healthy, and on their own. Sometimes I don't comment because I have no idea what I could say to add to the conversation. I have no frame of reference.

You seem to be well grounded and always on an even keel. You do seem to have a really good handle on your situation. For what it's worth, I aspire to the kind of strength you seem to possess.

I enjoy your writing most when it's personal. I adore the pieces about your father-in-law. They are poignant and touching. I also enjoy the pieces that are observational, describing little vignettes in your daily life. For entirely selfish reasons, I'd love to see more of the personal.

My husband's brother just died unexpectedly, at the age of 53, and it's reminded me of something I'd once known but forgotten. Lots and lots of people are very uncomfortable around the grieving, or around the very idea of impending death. I've had instances where friends say the "right" words, hurriedly, and then avoid eye contact and rush off. Or say incredibly insensitive things. I hope I don't do this to others, but I can be clunky. I probably do.

And also, being people who are grieving, my husband and I suddenly notice how much death is everywhere. Are the newspapers always so full of tragedy and death? I suspect they are, but that when it's not touching us personally it's easy to skim over it. When a door to it has been opened in your own life, it seems like it rushes in from all directions.

I've made this comment before, but I love your father-in-law stories.

[long comment, breaking into two]

Hmm. In the last post (I see now, having read it sans comments in Bloglines given the rushing of my last many days, otherwise I would have commented! Sorry to have missed the call - ), you asked what's helped people cope in similar situations. Like your 'run away,' answered so correctly by J., I have a flippant - no, not flippant, overwhelmed - answer to that of 'I don't know - ' because the answers all feel trite, or so highly personal they couldn't possibly be relevant to anyone else, blah blah. And you know, they are, but maybe there's comfort in them anyway.

I go to the woods, and listen, and breathe it in, and am alone and profoundly Not Alone as I only am in the woods. I tell a beloved I want to run away. I get tired. I keep going. I love. In other words, pretty much, I do what you're doing.

Maybe that goes toward your other question re: why there were few comments on that last post - I don't think you shut people out in the way you wrote it or anything like that, I think it's just that you are clearly doing what you need to be doing, feeling what you need to be feeling, and there are probably a lot of silent nods going on (which, I know well, don't help the writer at all, but it's one of those blog hazards; no supportive body language to read, no knowledge of invisible support, so it leaves the writer feeling skinless to put it out and get back what is at least apparently silence).

So, mea culpa for my own silent nod, and what I was thinking/feeling reading it was: "Yes." And/or: "I know." And also remembering my own dead, dying, fears, losses, experiences: telling my beloved grandfather I loved him for the first time on the last day I saw him, since I knew it would be the last time and we were New Englanders to such a degree that the L word was tacky day to day, etc., and he said it back, and I was glad - and it didn't keep him alive or ease the grief but I remain glad that we said it.

The only other thing I can say that might be of conceivable relevance or use or company is that I share your recent death of a parent, which came for me at the tail end of several years of heavy losses and many deaths of people close to me. And cancer is presently doing its work on several people I love. And each of these things triggers other losses not directly mortality-related, but in the end, all losses are mortality-related, to me, so there ya go.

What I've been learning in this is legion, and deep – about how the death of a parent in particular changes the psychic lay of the land in a profound way unlike any other loss (including ones more painful) – people had told me this, but I didn't get it until it happened. About how some losses are fatal to the survivor, even when they keep going; that I am not at all the person I was prior, and am starting entirely over even as I retain a history, it is a blank slate, a wholly new world without the beloved in it (and that sometimes for years, maybe always on one level or another, even as new joy comes in, death lives with me now). About how some losses are not at all fatal, but freeing, even as there's grief. About how the choices I make to support others, to move through an aging and/or dying process with someone, open new doors, and part of what's behind them is my own process, wholly separate from theirs, even when their process is my focus and whether I like it or not. Ie: there will be stuff, lots of stuff, for me to feel and sort through (a thing normalized in emergency work – we call it vicarious traumatization of caregivers & counselors, right? – but we forget, or think we can set aside, the personal process of immersing in mortality when we are moving through a 'natural' death).

This is probably not much use except to say I am definitely hearing you, and I share some of the experiences of deep searching inwardly and outwardly for, if not meaning, at least comfort in the mortal coil reality. And that I absolutely trust that you are doing right, whatever that means. And sending a hug and cup of tea, and a wish for a solid week of 8 hours of sleep each night for you and J both.

I think mostly it's just really hard stuff to talk about. Most people don't avoid living it, but thinking and talking about it we do often avoid, and doing so is a struggle with the culture many of us grew up in. Those of your readers who are also writers will know that being able to articulate something, to tell your story to yourself and to others, though hugely important and worthwhile and something that writers have a strong compulsion to do, makes it all into a coherent structure only in the moment of writing; it does nothing in itself to make the reality less messy and difficult, except as part of a wider, longer, unending process of trying and failing and trying again to be present to our lives at both their saddest and their most joyous xxx

I'm in no position to advise anyone. Rather, I learn from you, often. I have no children, an older husband, one sister who is far away -- I worry too often about growing old alone. Lately, I have been trying to face down the fear as one does a nightmare monster, in the hope that doing so will make it resolve into something smaller. I breathe slowly, and open my hands to release it, and it helps.

I love your father-in-law stories, as I've said before. I think your project of writing about him is something you should not let go. And please do some drawings, and post them.

I have lost all of the women who were important to me, most recently my mother...
There are times when I feel I have no family at all, save for The Ragazzi, it's a bleak outlook
Then I remember that I friends, many of whom I have never met and probably never will, unless you all turn up in Brittany and you'd all be most welcome, and friends are, I suggest, the new extended family of our age
So you'll never be alone Beth
You have us

Like Jean wrote, I find this is hard to write about, especially as I'm not all that articulate. It's taken me a while to respond while deciding to keep this personal - how can it not be? When my mother was dying, I had an outpouring and some relief in my artmaking for a while, but the grief was hard because I was not able to be with her when she left this earth earlier than expected. Four years later, we cared for my father in our home, where he died. This time, my work was quieter, slower, more meditative, I think because I felt orphaned. So for me, it was not writing but artmaking that proved to be meditative and therapeutic. Parents-in-laws, aunts and uncles have left. I feel the weight of being the eldest generation. Yes, life goes on, I'm aging and sometimes stuggling with some health issues but I feel more and more blessed in having a wonderful life, with a loving partner, three daughters and two granddaughters who will, I hope, be with me when my turn comes. It's hard sometimes to think of that last journey, but if one is not alone...

Your thoughtful and heartfelt writing about your being there with your mother and your father-in-law bring all this back for me of course. How very blessed she was and he is to have you along on that final journey - and it's a kind of blessing for you too, isn't it, Beth? When your own time comes, I'm sure there will be many loved ones beside you! And you have a strong faith.

As for what you should write, I'd say whatever your heart wishes, I love everything!

Strange, isn't it, that studies have shown that the happiest people tend to be retired people, those closest to death and dying. I've lost both parents, and far too many colleagues that I worked and played with for 30 years or more. I am a motherless (and fatherless) child, and I don't think that sense of emptiness every entirely disappears. In the middle of watching a football game, I'll wish that my father was still there to share the excitement or frustration with me. When I'm sick I wish my mother was there to comfort me, wives are so not a substitute for mothers when you're sick.

I've even looked into that great Void myself, once or twice, and I would be lying to say that I wasn't shaken by the experience. But in the end, you make the choices you have to make and you go on. Each time I've had to make life-or-death decision there's been a sense of loss, but also a sense of being stronger.

In the end, what doesn't kill you probably makes you more able to face that which awaits you. You don't rationalize or explain these things, you simply adjust to the situation as you find it. I suppose more than a few pity themselves and complain to others, but I try to spend every day, except for those when I've caught the flu from a grandchild, thankful for the time I still have here.

A friend said he was awed by how brave I was in the face of cancer, but it never crossed my mind to be "brave." I was too busy just staying alive, just managing to climb the stairs after surgery so I could take a much-needed nap. If you can face life's hardships now, I'm sure you'll continue to meet them as long as you live, Beth.

I didn't post a comment about your thoughts because they were over my head. I didn't understand them, so I just skimmed.

In answer to what I think you should write about, I'd say I most look forward to seeing something about your father-in-law. He seems so alive in your writing. I would like to know him better. Your writing permits that. It's one of the reasons I read blogs - to meet people I'd never know otherwise.

Thanks for asking my opinion.

Going through a lot myself right now. My brother just died of lung cancer and my husband is going through 14 weeks of chemo and radiation for tongue cancer--a man who ran five days a week, took yoga, ate well and hasn't smoked or had a drink in thirty years. I felt, when this first began, like I'd been blindsided.

One of the few things I have energy for at the end of the day is reading your blog. Incredibly uplifting, comforting. The stories of you with your father-in-law have really sustained me. So I'm hoping that you stay with it for a while.

I've commented to several good friends in the last few weeks that the overwhelming feeling during all this stuff I've been experiencing is the feeling of being in another country. A place where no one else lives. Everyone else can go on with their lives and yes, Beth, I also want to run away. All the time. But I can't. So I hang in as best I can. And read wonderful stories about you and your husband and your father-in-law and it helps to know that someone else is dealing with this too.

Thanks so much.

Beth, the aloneness is always with us and I think it's important to be at ease with it. Losing my parents and others close to me was traumatic, life-changing. I will never cease to miss them but it's no longer a heart-tightening pain. I see aloneness- not the same as loneliness - as something positive, strengthening. Anxiety about being left alone is about the fear of abandonment: we will be forgotten,rejected, discarded; if we cry out, nobody will hear. But that's not true. The fact is that we are among the privileged, those who are loved. Does it matter whether that love comes from family or friends or even from strangers? We have the love, we are wealthy, in love-terms. So we can deal with aloneness, it's not frightening. Those who are not so fortunate, those who perhaps have never received love at all, theirs is a very different solitude.
I empathise with all that you said in this post because the same thoughts often go through my mind. Then I remember that my thoughts are not necessarily reality.

The loss of my mother in 2004 completely broke me for a long while and although I'm able to function adequately now, the sadness and sorrow of her not being here is so enormous that I am changed forever, I know. And I want to run away too. I'm in my early fifties, no children, no parents, and I no longer seem to have the faintest idea what to do with my life. That frightens me somewhat. I am spending a lot of time reading about other people's lives, (blogs, autobiogs., biogs. etc) looking for clues, and not living my own. Why are so many of us anxious and paralysed?

Beth -- as others said already, you are not alone, even if what has to be faced is at the very heart of aloneness. Illness, age, death, these are all as much part of life as joy, discovery, love, connectedness... It all sounds like hollow platitudes, I know, but words do really fail when it comes to sharing these experiences. Not presence, though. Not that. and know that we are all here, as we know that you are here for us. I can't tell you how many times have I come for sustenance to your writing. You have that, probably, too as your sustenance, even if at times it doesn't seem so.

When I picked up Pixie for our play date, he came out of school brandishing his homework folder wildly above his head. He eagerly showed me his assignment. “Work on initial‘s’ sound!”
I have no idea why ‘s’ sounds turned him on, but we merrily shouted out ‘school bus‘, ‘stoplight‘, ‘shop‘, etc. until we pulled into a parking lot at the VA hospital. “Do you want to come with Grampa while he gets his flu shot?” At the sound of this‘s’ word, the smile on Pixie’s face vanished. The sparkle went out of his eyes. His complexion paled. He shrunk back into a corner of the car seat. “NO”.
Not loud, but firm. Pixie is terrified of shots. He is a veteran of a couple of 911 rides with sirens and flashing lights and ER treatment for seizures. It took repeated assurances, ‘this is Grampa’s shot’, to get a soft “OK”.
We had to walk through long corridors lined with veterans in wheelchairs and braces and crutches and with oxygen bottles and drip stands and all the other apparatus of Pixie’s traumatic memories.
Pixie trudged silently by my side, eyes set straight ahead, his face a doomsday mask.
As I filled out paper work, Pixie asked if he could sit in a chair in the far corner of the clinic. When I was next in the ‘shot line’, I looked back. He was scrunched as far back into the chair as he could get with both hands over his eyes.
A word to the nurse and she gently coaxed Pixie over ‘to watch Grampa get a shot!’ He came obediently. He watched open-eyed and was rewarded with a double ration of candy.
But this was serious business for him. Solemnly, he put the candy back into the basket. Hand in hand, we walked stoically through veterans waiting for treatment back into the bright autumnal sunshine.
Once home, we opened his ‘burger and fries’ treat, turned on the ‘bad guy’ cartoon. A couple of half hearted bites and Pixie was asleep, exhausted by his hospital heroics.
The play date was over.
I wonder. Mourning is a process of walking through crippling memories. The touch of a loving hand or speaking a kind word doesn’t heal the numbing fear and trembling.
They can, however, encourage the lonely heroic walk back into sunshine.

Beth rather unexpectedly I was incredably cheered, myself, in the midst of some parallel feelings that I might not be doing the right thing at the moment (trying to study/ playing computer games instead / giving feedback on a friend's poem and thinking I did a bad job/ trying to read a thesis/ trying to clean the house / coping with retirement, clutter, volunteer demands / yearning for the endless freedom that just doesn't stretch out as far in front of me as it did) by a headline article in the NY Times today on triathletes. Turns out that when you try to be good at three sports instead of one, the body works against each other and so do the neural paths. It almost guarantees that at any one point something WON'T be working. On the other hand, something generally WILL be working. And this zone rotates. The triathlete will also never be the world's best at anything but will be good at a three different things. Some discussion of the relative value of performance and pleasure in the activity is relevant too. It made me realize that I never really named or accepted my deep desire (need, even?) to do more than one thing, that this is a sacrifice of a certain kind of perfection and intensity in favour of a different achievement/ a different life. But I keep looking for the inner/outer rewards of the one-sport athlete. Scholar, theologian, poet. From your photographs I hope to someday see some art of yours, you have referred to it so sadly here and there, you miss it? Does it miss you? I am in awe of your writing about M.'s last days, there is a transparency and openness you have to what is happening that is truly numinous, a gift to your readers and to life itself.

Thank you all for these amazingly honest comments - you've given me so much more than I ever expected, and I am very grateful. I've tried to write back to everyone here by email and there are just too many comments, deserving of specific responses, for me to include everything here. So I'll simply say a general thanks and yes, I'll keep writing! Stopping was never the intention, but every now and then a re-assessment is necessary; you've helped me more than you know.

Patti at 37Days has taught me two things about writing, that I have taken to heart but not yet acted upon: First that you must write about what you are passionate about, not what you are most competent writing about; and secondly that great writing is always personal, raw, exposed. The icing on the cake, I think, is a great first sentence, a great last sentence, and one sentence somewhere that really rings, something terse and memorable -- these things get our attention and give us a 'hook' to keep what we've read in our mind, and keep us coming back. It's all about love, conversation and community -- what we really care about, what we have to say that's important, and how we connect and contract with others.

Beth, I'm coming to this late, having "saved" this & the earlier post until a time when I had time to read them thoughtfully. I think many times people just don't know what to say when someone artfully & articulately asks questions that can't be answered...and isn't that exactly the kind of questions you're posing here? "Why do we die," "Why do we have to suffer," "Why is it so HARD," "What should I do with my life, my writing, etc," "Why is it all so tiring & discouraging," etc. I have NO IDEA what the answer to ANY of these questions are, and I feel completely unqualified to say anything helpful. In person, I'd listen, nod, and offer a hug, or perhaps fix you a cup of tea and rub your shoulders while you drank it. But in an online context, that's not possible...so what can any of us say, or do, or offer?

I might have told this story before, but... Once in a Zen interview, I asked a visiting teacher whom I respected what I should do about a particularly painful situation in my life at the time. All this Zen talk seemed fine & good, but what should I do about this situation that was breaking my heart? I knew there was nothing a relative stranger could do given that all he knew about the situation was what I could tell him in a brief interaction, but what he did absolutely blew my mind. He said nothing: he just sat there and looked at me with warm, compassionate eyes that showed how deeply he was listening. After several moments, all he said was, "It hurts. How could you possibly be going through a situation like this without it hurting?"

There was no easy solution to the situation I was in, and there was no escape. And by not trying to fix it--by simply sharing the pain of "where I was at" for a few minutes--that teacher gave me a gift that I've always deeply cherished, because what he said was true. It does hurt to be awake and alive...how could it not?

So, I have no answers, and I think others have given better words of wisdom than I ever could. But yes, I'm here listening & wishing I had better answers, or more wisdom, or at least a pot of in-person tea to share.

Hi Dave - thanks for your thoughtful comment. You're right, I think - it's the passion that matters. And every time I have taken the risk and opened myself up, showed what's inside without artifice or self-protection, walls come down between writer and reader. People are very attuned to authenticity and integrity; you can't fake it. And you certainly can't build community on anything less.

Lorianne - you may not have answers, but you've hit it on the head. The point isn't to make sense of life's randomness or unfairness or the simple fact that pain and sorrow and difficulty exist - we can't. It's to find ways of being alive and present in spite of whatever is happening to us. Running is not only impossible, it actually hurts more. Deadening ourselves with drugs or alcohol may help temporarily, but when we sober up, the problem is still there. But so is the color of the sky, the sound of the birds, the touch of someone's hand. These things are exactly as they were before the diagnosis or the break-up or the loss of the job. I think a major essence of a true spiritual path is exactly this: to learn how to "be with" the pain and the joy, seeing what remains constant, and learning how to listen to others in a way that doesn't deny what they're going through but affirms it with courage, understanding, and love. Thanks for writing and for that story.

Beth, all I know is your stories make me feel less alone. You have a compassionate, precise, and artful writing hand.

And again what I said earlier. Sorry I've not been around much. Sometimes I think its because people have too much to say rather than not enough, and don't know where to start...

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