The following is the draft of the final chapter of the book I have been working on. The book is called Dragons in the Garden, and is about parenting in its very broadest sense. The first chapter is called The Bravest Thing, and is about the courage we all display in putting our hearts on the line by choosing to open them to these little beings, and to love in general in our lives. The rest of the book is about various aspects of this, including Michaela’s story. This last chapter I wrote during my treatments for cancer, and it is about the final lesson we teach our children: how to live without us; how to face death of those they love and even their own death one day. I am publishing it here in my blog because I don’t know when the book will be finished, or when it may ever be available, and there are some things I think are valuable enough that I need to speak them aloud.
Thank you for reading this. And remember, you are loved.
I am going to tell the truth. I have been seeing death peeking at me from around the corner. There is no reason at this precise moment for me to feel that way. I had Stage IIIC breast cancer, but it’s been cut out, killed with chemo, and blasted with radiation. It might one day kill me, but it won’t be today, and it won’t be tomorrow. Yet I had a dream this week in which my husband said we could save money by not buying something, because if I died this week I wouldn’t need it anyway. I was surprised at his words, wondered where he would get such an idea, but then just accepted it.
I just finished reading a blog written by a woman who is dying right now, today or tomorrow or the next day, but right now traveling through the final leg of the journey. I read it, and I wished for words to say, but there were none. As I read it, in my heart, a picture arose of an old time stage coach with a passenger who had been traveling a long time. It was dark, and it was raining, but the lights of home could be seen now in the not too far distance. It was a large home, spacious, promising shelter and warmth, and food, since this last part of the journey has been so hard, and she looked eagerly and wearily out the window at it.
It means nothing, this picture. It’s just something that popped into my head. Perhaps someone will remember it when I take that final journey, and be comforted. Perhaps I will remember it myself, and be comforted.
I have a tattoo on my arm. I got it a couple of years ago. I have had all my tattoos done since I turned sixty. Perhaps all of them are aimed at defying age, but a couple of them overtly so. They are all based on Tolkien’s poetry, from The Lord of the Rings. The first one, which I got for my 60th birthday, says “Deep roots are not reached by the frost.” The most recent one is from the road cycle of poems, and it says, “Still ‘round the corner there may wait a new road or a secret gate.” The tattoo ends there, but the stanza after that continues, “And though I oft have passed them by, the day will come at last when I will take the hidden paths that run west of the moon, east of the sun.” Ostensibly this tattoo is to remind me that there are things that I have not done, that I have yet to do. But in all honesty, this is the final stanza in the road cycle, and Frodo speaks it as he is preparing to leave with the elves for the Grey Havens. From the first time I read these books when I was twelve, I have always understood that as a metaphor for death. This absolutely was not in my mind when I got the tattoo. Although I knew it, I was 17 years old when I had first typed this stanza in italic type on pretty paper, cut it out and hung it on my wall. So I had always allowed it to have a different meaning for me. Now, however, when I read it I can see the boats and the misty seas.
The fact is I currently plan to live to the age of ninety, and I hope that the world will read this years from now and talk about what a drama queen I was, talking like this. But really it is not the immediacy of death that I am feeling. It is simply the acknowledgement of it, the internal experience of its reality, that it does actually happen, in a way that didn’t come home to me when my father died, or when my mother died, or when my daughter disappeared into an abyss from which she never returned. (That last statement also I hope will make people shake their heads, because Michaela will have come home and rested in the arms of her family before I die at age 90. Or 95, 97, 98.)
I have never been particularly afraid of dying. If anything it has seemed like a great adventure! I figured that either I would go somewhere after I died, or I wouldn’t. If it should turn out that we are just biology and electricity and this life is all there is, then I will go to sleep and not wake up, and I won’t care a bit. On the other hand, if this life is not all there is, it just doesn’t occur to me that where we go would be anything but good. When people I love have died, I have felt in their deaths a feeling of freedom, that all the pain and sadness and striving were left behind. I could hear them cry, “The sun is shining, and I can fly!” I felt this after receiving news of my aunt’s death in England, at age 95. After my mother died, we took her ashes and my dad’s out on the Neptune Society’s boat, and scattered them just outside the north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. We did it on November 19th, the anniversary of Michaela’s kidnapping, and it was a beautiful day, unseasonably warm and sunny, just as it was on the day Michaela disappeared. The colors of the bay and sky, the hills and the city were vibrant, and it oddly filled my heart with joy.
My fears are not of death itself, although I have some trepidation about the process of dying. I have witnessed it, heard of it, and I know it can be an ugly, painful thing. I am afraid to go through that. I am a weenie when it comes to pain. I recently had some sort of an excruciating pain in my shoulder, painful enough that it made me want to vomit, that it made me unable to sleep, or even to sit back in a chair or on my couch because the slightest pressure set off bombs of pain. It lasted a couple of weeks, and I thought a lot about people who suffer from chronic pain, wondered how they lived with it. I thought about those dying painful deaths, and for the first time really felt in my body how someone might prefer assisted suicide.
And yet not, because while I don’t fear death, I do so deeply love the things in life. I love my family, my husband, my children, my grandchildren, even my dogs! I don’t think I could ever die peacefully without knowing that they would all be well cared for. I don’t think I could die peacefully knowing that my death would cause them grief. When I sat by my mother’s deathbed, I wept and held her hand in mine and bathed it in buckets of tears. I asked her if she was going to survive this, because I was honestly looking for some kind of goodbye, but was unable to speak it, to say, “Are you leaving?” And she, wanting to reassure me, said yes, she would live. Finally, on the third day, as her distress deepened, I held her hand and released her. “You can go now,” I said. “I don’t want you to suffer. You don’t have to worry about me, because I will be all right. I will always have you with me in my heart,” I said, and held our clasped hands to that space in the middle of my chest where the ache lived. Although she had been unconscious for a couple of days, I think she heard, because in less than five minutes she was gone. I sat with her for a long while after she died, long enough for all my family to gather from wherever they were and join me there. I sat and watched as every blemish, every little broken blood vessel, left her skin, and she was left looking truly radiant.
There are things my mother could have done differently, or perhaps I could have done them differently. This is important, because we as mothers teach our children to live, but what a blessed gift is given to us when we can also teach them how to die. My mother had advanced emphysema. I knew she was dying. She knew she was dying. Her damn doctor knew she was dying, but he wouldn’t say so. Instead he scheduled her next follow up appointment six months out, knowing full well she would never make it. How I wish we could have looked death in the eye and talked about it, instead of pretending it didn’t exist, doing the “oh pshaw” brush off whenever a conversation looked like it might veer off that way. As she was in the hospital in those last days, how I wish she had been able to give me even a little glimpse into where she was, what she experienced, instead of reassuring me that she would be fine.
My own children have that fear of death. My older daughter, who lives in another state, just simply tells me that I am required to live forever. My sons, they like to avoid difficult subjects. My younger daughter, who is in her early twenties, lives with me. She has traveled with me through this cancer journey. She sat in the doctor’s office and teared up when I received the original diagnosis. She has fared pretty well through it so far I think. Who knows what may lay unsaid by either of them, but perhaps now is not the time. For now death is a shadowy stranger standing on a hillside, his clothes blowing in the breeze. For now, he oversees our living, our rebuilding from the destruction wrecked in our lives from the battle against him. Today he applauds and says, well done. Carry on. Because he is not an enemy, you see. He bears us no ill will. He wishes us only good. Sometimes he takes our hands for a little while in order to move us forward on the path to life. This is the death I have come to know in the course of my life. This is the death I would like my children to know. He would be entirely beautiful if it were not for the fact that he separates us finally from each other, but even that, I believe, is only temporary.
So what am I to do in order to consider myself successful in teaching my children about this final leg of the journey?
First, I need to teach them how to live, that though we perhaps shouldn’t fear death, we do not need to embrace him. Our choices should all be aimed towards life. This is the dull stuff, the engaging in healthy lifestyles and disengaging from those things in life that we know could kill us. I used to think about the things we do that bring fleeting enjoyment, and how if the day came that we were facing death, we would regret every cookie, every cigarette, every thing and every moment that brought us to that moment. There have been entire books written on this, and I have read a whole lot of them. I am not ignorant of what I should be doing and not doing, but still this is an area where I struggle. Now it is real, however. It is the nature of cancers to shed cells to wander our bodies and perhaps take up residence somewhere else. I have seen mine wandering already, through my lymphatic system. There are diets and lifestyles that have shown efficacy in preventing and even curing cancer, so why would I choose anything else?
Why indeed? Because in the day to day struggle I often find myself in dark places, where just standing is an effort, where I seek comfort, a distraction from the battle. I don’t have the strength to go out on the field and fight right now, I say. I want to rest in the comfort of the inn, with a blazing fire and a hearty meal. And rest is fine, but can it be done better? How about a walk? Yes it is exercise for the body, but it is rest for the soul. I have a lake nearby, with tree-lined pathways winding along its shore. I have homey neighborhoods where the scents and sounds of families living fills me with a quiet joy. How about meditation? My mind doesn’t like to be at rest. Perhaps I am afraid of what I will find if I journey within, but perhaps that is what I need, to face what I am trying to escape through unhealthy habits. Sleep? Sleep can be good, but it often fills me with anxiety when I wake up, certain that I should be doing something, should have been doing something, but uncertain what.
At its bottom, I know that my unhealthy habits are more than a failure to embrace life. They are truly attempts at self destruction. And I know where that comes from as well. But does it matter? Get over it, Sharon! You are not your own in this life. You do not have the choice, the right, to destroy yourself. You have a role to play, a job to do. You belong to the people who love you, and you do not have the right to rain grief down on their heads because you feel unworthy. You do not have the right to teach this to your children. Get up. Grasp life. Teach your children to live, and to love themselves and each other.
And the thing is, it feels good to live. It feels better to live in a body that is nourished than a body that is inflamed with toxins. It feels good to breathe deeply. It draws in energy and creativity from the universe. It feels good. It is good.
I will consider myself to be a success if the first thing I can teach my children about death is to allow it to transform your life, to make you strong. Let the understanding that it exists illuminate even the small things, the dark corners. We can sit staring at a sunset for ages, transfixed by the glory of it, amazed at its changing colors. Giant towers of clouds, lit by the sun and shadowed by the earth, can grasp our attention and make us sigh. But the normal blue sky and the horizontal clouds that stretch across it don’t have that impact on us, even though they are actually quite beautiful. They have just become ordinary, taken for granted, because they are the normal state of things. So it is with life. Every day we wake up and have another day, over and over and over again, day after day, forever and ever. No wonder we don’t grasp the importance of caring for our health, because we don’t really believe that we are going to die. Even when we fear it we don’t believe it. If we did, we would live differently. The same is true of our loved ones. Even when we suffer anxiety over their possible loss, we don’t really believe it. If we did, we would treat them differently. If that were not true, none of us would live with regrets after they pass, and yet we do. I know I do. I often think of how much more I could have done for my mother when she was living. I wonder how she felt, what she thought, and I can no longer ask her.
But there is something deeper, something more difficult to define. I have heard it said a dozen times or more, that once you have experienced a deep loss you are never the same again. In those dozen times or more, however, I have never heard it put into words. If I were to describe it, I would say it is like having the ocean take up residence inside you, with the ebb and the flow, the crashing of tides against the walls of flesh that separate you from the rest of the world. At the same time, it is a deep cave in the center of your chest. Many of us fear that cave, afraid that if we go in we will never come out again, that the walls and ceiling will narrow around us so that we don’t have room to turn around. And who knows? Maybe that is true. But we can sit at the mouth of the cave, with a well lit campfire to keep us warm. We can listen to the crashing of the waves within us, and we can look into the darkness. In that place is our healing and transformation. The worst thing we can do, something I myself have done for years, is to turn our backs on the cave, to run away, or to pile up distractions at the entrance of the cave to block out the darkness within. We pile up things, because you know a good shopping trip will help soothe a grieving heart, right? We pile up people, activities. We stuff the mouth of that cave full of food, or worse, drugs or alcohol. I have done it all.
For a long time, I had that cave so surrounded with junk that I didn’t even recognize it for what it is. Instead I referred to it as a black hole, and I was certain that if I allowed myself to get close to it, I would get sucked in. Even now, it is scary. Writing this chapter, I feel as though I have had to tiptoe up to the page with each word, to drop it and scurry away again. So obviously I am not there. But where I have been has left me sometimes broken and unable to function for periods of time, years and years, decades after the loss of my daughter. Even worse, it left me angry, at strangers, at myself, even, I am so sad to say, at my daughter.
The death of someone very close to you, someone with whom your life and heart are entwined, is a transition point in life. I sometimes think of myself as having two birthdays: one the day I was born, and the other the day I lost my daughter. Although I obviously have not always handled the second with the deepest of spiritual maturity, the forces of change have nevertheless been at work, and even if I didn’t want to look at them, I could not deny them. They have allowed me at least to experience the worst thing in life. They have allowed me to be an example, for you, and for my children. I can stand on the mountaintop and wave my arms and say, here, look! I survived! If I can survive, you can too! Sometimes I even say that to myself. I do still quake from the abject terror of the experience sometimes, but on another level it has given me a measure of courage.
Anger is one of the stages of grief — hopefully a brief one. In my case it was protracted, but the transition through and out of it filled me to overflowing with compassion. It left me wanting to wrap my arms around the world and fill it with love. The denial: well, that is a lifetime’s work perhaps to overcome. But I know what to do. I know to close my eyes in meditation, and drift to the beach in front of the cave in my heart, to listen to the waves, to be warmed by the fire, and to look into the darkness, just to see what I see there. What I see may not be what you see in your cave, but I guarantee it will be beautiful beyond measure, because it comes from something beautiful beyond measure: my love for my daughter. Maybe when my eyes become accustomed to it, I will be able to see that there is room in that cave to move, to breathe, and I will be able to explore further within.
The last thing I need to do in order to consider myself successful in teaching my children about death is to do that: to teach them. I need to break through the barriers of, “No, I don’t want to hear. You are going to live forever, I am going to live forever.” I need to speak to them of the cave and what I find inside it. Although for me the waves and the cave are a very visceral experience, it was not something I immediately identified, and if there is one thing I know, it is that having a visual, a place to go to in your mind when the world wants to overcome it, is of immense value.
After my cancer diagnosis, my pastor prayed for me, and he brought up Jesus calling to Peter to walk on the water to him, and that is a visual that stayed with my through all my treatments. In the scariest moments I called it to mind. It was almost immediately morphed into a vision of not merely walking on the water, but dancing on water that sparkled with light. It changed from time to time. There were those occasions when I sat in the boat, leaning over the side, and Jesus sat on the water outside the boat, leaning in, and I told him I could not get out today because I didn’t have enough faith to keep me afloat, and explained that he surely should understand this.
This place to which I went for comfort in times of fear or stress developed its own reality. The same is true the the cave and the waves. When grief and fear threaten to overwhelm me, I can go there, because I think not only the loss of my daughter lies in that place, but my own death as well. It is a place I must show my children, and teach them about its beauty, the dark sky overhead, the waves crashing, the beach with the dancing flames of the campfire to keep them warm. Sometimes it might be cold and stormy, sometimes even warm and sunny. But it is a place to sit, to learn, to find peace.
This is what I have seen so far on this path. And if I see more, I must share it with those I love, and not shy away. It is difficult, because I am afraid of hurting them, of causing them grief or pain or fear, but let’s exercise those muscles together while we can, so that when I am not here they will be strong enough to carry on, and will know the path, and will not be lost.
They will be able to say, I have been here before, with my mother, so I am not afraid. I have been here before with my mother, and she is still here, so I am not alone. And there we will sit, and we will touch hearts, and whisper comfort, until that day comes when we are together again, when death is defeated, and love, joy and wisdom are all that remain.