On this cold, blustery Patriot’s Day in Massachusetts, we salute all of the runners who are participating today in our hallowed Boston marathon. May these champions of resilience, perseverance, dedication and strength be safe, and finish the race. May we learn from their practice.
As you now read the lines above, the race is over and another day is here. Life has that way of moving along, even if our minds stay put in reflection and remembrance of a past experience. Our bodies are always right here, living moment to moment. Isn’t that interesting?
Personal stories and experiences can be the most inviting, heartfelt and provocative writing. Fresh from a recent visit with my (Gayle’s) aging parents, I thought I’d let news of the market fluctuations and economic political events take a backseat to what is closer to home for most of us, loss. Yesterday I saw this Peanuts comic on Facebook and it clearly reflects the essence of this message. Life is a day-to-day experience. And, we are all going to die.
Recently in the Colman Knight world, news of funerals, terminal illness, and chronic health matters are on the rise. In our circle of beautiful people we are experiencing several in each category. In times like these, the reality of what is happening now, sharpens. As I nurture my parents in the withering cocoons of their lives, I am given precious lessons on living a rich life. I’m learning how to live nakedly, grow up even more, forgive, stretch, and access sweeter joy, humor and love.
My mother is doing dementia and would be classified as a strong stage 3 in a system of 4 stages. She still walks with a cane and walker but this visit she was in her bed and nightgown most of the time. The pain, from what we guess is arthritis since no medical tests reveal anything else, permeates her body; and because her memory is fading, the pain is a repeating surprise, especially when she wakes up in the morning. In her mind, she is not supposed to be in pain. So, we tend to it as best as possible with cortisone shots, non-addictive pain medication, anti-pain salve and her new best friend, Mr. Heating Pad.
My father is failing in health too, though his mind is sharper than my mother’s. At 90, he endures the afflictions of a body whose condition is like leather left out in the rain too many times. His coping mechanism for my mother’s mental decline and that of his own physical health, is denial – a generational family trait.
They have chosen to remain in their large family home of almost 50 years. My siblings and I, no spring chickens ourselves as my father likes to say, are gently walking a razors edge; assisting their care with a caregiver, navigating the choppy waters of parents unwilling to see that they need more help, watching their situation deteriorate, and patching together support like an awkward jigsaw puzzle.
Looking at the situation from another perspective, or the outside looking in, this way of declining, and eventually dying, is nuts. There are better choices that would attend to the pain and suffering more skillfully. But most of us remain deeply ignorant about this stage in life. I do not judge my parents for their choices. I’m not angry about what is happening. Mostly, I feel sad and sometimes scared. And, I feel grateful for the opportunity to experience this chapter within family community – a lesson which I hope to remember when I enter this stage of life.
There are no “right ways” to navigate this never before seen, touched, felt, tasted period of life. There are hundreds of books depicting this penultimate near-to-the-end period for loved ones. Being Mortal by Atul Gawande is a favorite read. Each of our experiences will be unique, and being in the experience is the only real, and I would say meaningful, way.
We all know we will die (wrapped in functional denial) but we remain ignorant about the experience. This knowing or understanding is a concept that comes and might go; but embodied experiences are a broader awareness that support the likelihood of remembering what is so. Rich and I held an understanding about our parents’ longevity. Rich and I were certain that my mother-in-law, Bea, would outlive my parents. But, this time last year she passed away at age 94, from complications after a car accident. Our experience contrasted all concepts.
In perhaps far too many words, what I am trying to say is, each day is fresh. Each moment is fresh. Do not stall in answering Mary Oliver’s popular line from her poetry:
“So tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
For some of us, we don’t get the lesson even when it is right smack in front of us. My parents did not get the lesson. 50:50 chance that my siblings and I will get the lesson. My kids – even at their young adult age – seem to be getting the lesson. It’s gradual, it’s slow sometimes, it breaks your heart. It melts resentments and burns anger, it expands freedom like a seagull soaring in a storm. It flows joy like a new mother swooning over her growing baby.
This article is an invitation to pause our fascination with present day exterior forces and come closer to home.
What are the areas of your rich and precious life that call for attention,
so that in all of the days in which you do not die,
you can live, and fulfill preciousness,
long before you arrive at the threshold of your decline?
How can you honor the truth from Charlie Brown and revel in the truth from Snoopy?
How can your story be one of meaningful legacy, inspired by the passage below?
“In the end, people don’t view their life as merely the average of all its moments—which, after all, is mostly nothing much plus some sleep. For human beings, life is meaningful because it is a story. A story has a sense of a whole, and its arc is determined by the significant moments, the ones where something happens. Measurements of people’s minute-by-minute levels of pleasure and pain miss this fundamental aspect of human existence. A seemingly happy life maybe empty. A seemingly difficult life may be devoted to a great cause. We have purposes larger than ourselves.”
~ Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End