Saturday, November 2, 2013
An Internal Difference
Mornings I wake with a song in my head. The songs generally come from my youth, though I never really connected with most music in the seventies: Even in the seventies, I was a child of the sixties. Some mornings, I can guess why a particular song has come to visit. Other mornings I have no idea. Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” for example, a song I neither like nor connect with, is a frequent visitor. The songs I love are more poetic than “Just Beat It, Beat It. / Just Beat It, Beat It. / Just Beat It, Beat It. / Just Beat It, Beat It.”
I can’t remember a morning before this morning that I didn’t wake to the music in my head. This morning, however, I woke to Emily Dickinson, whose words have been in my mind lately, a companion as a plank in my mind seems to have broken, leaving me dropping into new worlds.
Perhaps there will be a truth for you in Emily’s experience as there is for me:
There's a certain Slant of light, Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft Of Cathedral Tunes –
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us – We can find no scar,
But internal difference, Where the Meanings, are –
None may teach it – Any – 'Tis the Seal Despair –
An imperial affliction Sent us of the Air –
When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, 'tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –
In my class on death and dying Wednesday night, as I struggled with my emotions after an intense activity on the experience of loss for the person dying, my professor invited me to take care of myself as I needed to. I so appreciated that invitation, and instead of watching most of the film on cancer, I wrote. After class, my professor asked if I were writing a blog entry. I didn’t know. Writing is my way of processing my emotions. By externalizing them, putting words to them, I come to know myself better. At least that’s the theory. I write for myself first, and I often (but not always) share my thinking—or at least some of it—in my blog. There’s company there: though I can’t see who’s reading, sometimes people who read it tell me that they’ve been reading in a comment in the blog, a personal email, a conversation. In reading your comments, my blogging community, I feel your support.
Generally, I don’t know who’s reading my blog unless that person lets me know. I do see numbers, so unless there’s some Oz playing a game behind the technology, somewhere between one and two hundred of you check in each week. (I’m not sure if that includes those of you who receive the entries on your email.
I am always surprised and delighted, humbled even, when I learn that someone is reading my blog and that the reading is staying with that person in some way. This spring, I remember leaving The Egyptian Theatre in a crowd after seeing a film about Alice Walker and even seeing Alice Walker (a shero), and as I concentrated in order not to be trampled, a woman’s voice that I did not recognize yelled out with a kind of glee: “Can’t duck it!” That’s the name of my blog. I figured out who had done the yelling, a woman I knew but not well, years ago, and I felt a kind of communion with her.
Another woman that I didn’t know well years ago, a woman who also had a brain tumor, emailed once to say that she reads the blog regularly, and through the reading she had decided to try reconciling with her father, whom she had not communicated with for decades. She explained the connection then, which I don’t now remember, and I haven’t heard from her again in the year or so that has passed, but her story reinforces my notion that in telling and sharing stories, there builds a community of the spirit, and in that community there is healing.
Wordsworth said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions recollected in a moment of tranquility. (At least that’s how I remember it from my college days. When I do a Google search, there are slight variations on this, but I like my recollected version best.) Whenn I wrote this entry earlier this week, I was not yet ready for poetry: I was not yet tranquil. I was still in the overflow of powerful emotions stage.
But now I’ve come to a new peace, and I’m ready share with you. Thanks for your generous patience.
This first part I wrote in class during the film (though I’ve cleaned it up a little):
Today we did an activity about loss. We listed the things and people we care about, each on a piece of paper: 3 people, 3 activities, 3 animals, 3 vacations, 3 material things we’ve always wanted. Then we heard a story of a cancer diagnosis, and as we heard the story each of us lost one treasure at a time. Each time, we crumpled the little piece of paper with the name of someone or something we loved and threw it to the floor. My throat began to ache with my own experiences of loss.
The story was in some ways like my own: the doctor calls to talk; decisions need to be made quickly; loss happens quickly and so do interventions; I have to decide how to tell people—who and how. As my professor told this story of loss, I remembered my own: I remembered standing in front of the mirror, practicing: How do I tell people that I have a brain tumor? Is it “I have a brain tumor’ or ‘I have a brain tumor”? Do I smile? Cry? I don’t know. I practiced for a performance I would repeat.
My first performance was a disaster. That first night, an acquaintance, barely an acquaintance, called to find time to plan a theatre unit on immigration that we had hoped to plan for her more privileged private school students and my less privileged students, many of them refugees and immigrants to this country, some with and some without documents. I said to her, “I’m sorry. This isn’t a good time to plan this activity for me. I’ve just learned that I have a brain tumor.” She stumbled and rushed to get off the phone. I needed to get better at this performance.
I became a little lost in my memories of loss. At the end of the activity in class, with the names of two people I care about left on the pink squares of paper in front of me, my professor who introduced herself as Death knelt in front of me and took my last two people. I’m generally pretty upbeat, but at this I felt anger surge. I did not see this as Death taking away my last two people. I saw this as a professor who cared about me taking them from me. I thought, “Don’t you know that I’ve been through enough loss?” I was angry at someone who has become important to me.
At the end of the activity, my professor said, “I am not death. I am your professor. This has not been real, but this is the experience of a person who is dying. While mourners grieve the loss of someone they love, the dying person loses everything and everyone. We cannot see whom death will choose. Death is random.”
I went into my mind, where I am safely protected from my emotions. I thought, “No, it isn’t. Death isn’t random. Everyone dies. Only the timing is random. And even that isn’t totally random. If nothing else, age will take me eventually.” I wanted to argue. And I said to myself, as I do so often, “Death is part of life. I want my death to be as full of living as it can be, like I want my life to be. After all, there’s dying in life. I know that, too.”
So much thinking. I’m a thinker. Feeling is seldom the first thing I notice, and that night I finally noticed what I was feeling. My chest was tight. My hand tremors did a disco. My stomach felt heavy and sick. My throat ached with a tightness I’ve felt before. I wanted to rest my hand on my chest, the warmth that I learned in Reiki and during my divorce for calming me. I breathed into my diaphragm. That’s all I knew to do: breathe deep into my body and rest my hand on my chest. And pray. “Lord, help me in this moment. Just help me. Please.”
Our class took a break, and I went to the bathroom and to the water fountain. I didn’t really need to go to these places, but I need a break that took me out of that room. My professor stopped me in the hall, and I was glad for her presence…. After going to the bathroom, I headed into the hall and then went back into the bathroom. No one else was in there. There was a mirror on the wall. Though I have at all times avoided looking directly into a mirror since my surgery, I looked directly at myself. My right eye looked forward. My left eye, like always, was in the inner corner of my eye. It’s hard to look at myself this way, both because this eye shouts my losses at me and because I see double, and it’s hard to see two of me in this kind of pain. I looked for a long moment, and then I nodded and left. As I opened the door, I breathed deeply again.
After this intense activity, our class watched a film on cancer, and needing to be part of the community, I tried to watch, but I just couldn’t. I said to the spirit that stays with me, “Help me now. How do I take care of myself? How do I live with this? I feel so tired. I haven’t watched a minute of the film the class is watching. I really don’t know what to do with myself. What am I doing here? I am learning about death, which is learning about life. Which makes it sound easier than it is.”
I typed as the film played, and I lost the film as I sought to steady myself. I continued to write as I tried to re-enter the film:
I’m a thinker who’s feeling, and I feel sick. I returned momentarily to the film. Interesting choice of words: not Larry had cancer, but Larry’s body had cancer. And then the film was over and the lights were back on. A good number of people had left. I saw their darkness against the dark as they quietly hoisted their backpacks and slipped silently, like ghosts, out the door.This was an intense night for many of us.
There was not much time for reflection: there was so much to do. Our professor, who does not hurry, hurried us through assignments. She told us that the Advance Care Directive is due on the last day of class. She told us to look on the website for info about our field trip to a funeral home next week. She told us our journal entry is due next week, and then in a response to protests remembered that we would be doing this in class. We had only a few minutes for closing, so we should be concise.
Finally, she ended the night with a graceful prayer. Its close stays with me: “May you be filled with lovingkindness.”
At the end of class, we filed out silently. It felt like the air had been sucked from the room. As I left, she shared again the Buddhist prayer with which she had closed class. I wish I could remember it.
Outside, it was raining lightly, and I grimaced a little. Tonight, I was in no mood for the bus, which is usually such a joyous place for me. I didn’t want the light and the noise. I wanted to sink into a comforter, into a darkness and a sleep and to rest with my emotions, to let them heal.
Fortunately, the moment I arrived at the bus stop, a long line was just getting on the #48, one of my buses home. As I boarded, the driver, a portly African American man with a greying beard, said, “Good evening,” in a deep voice like James Earl Jones’ voice.
I sat close to the front of the bus, where I always sit, in a seat prioritized for people with disabilities. Across from me sat a plump woman in a Mack truck of a wheelchair, her long grey braid making her look older than her pinkish apple cheeks. The bus was full of the sounds of university students, health care workers going home, and a variety of accents from all around the world heading to our homes and hipper somebodies just heading out for the night. A couple of seats back, two men talked in the accents of men who have moved here recently from Africa. I heard one say, “I was a long time in Kenya,” and I looked to see who sat with him, a man perhaps in his forties with the quiet demeanor and light brown skin of an Ethiopian.
I love the life on the bus. The mother in the wheelchair asked her twelve year-old son, who was playing with glowing blue pieces of plastic beside me, what he had done today. He shrugged and said, “Somethin’.” She didn’t seem bothered by the response and said, “Well, I guess that’s better than nothin’.” I laughed and she seemed to appreciate the adult camaraderie. She went back to her phone and he to his glowing plastic.
A cheerful someone sat beside me, said, “Hi, Mary! I didn’t know you took the bus!” It was Stephanie, from my Tuesday night class, and her friendliness, the jingle of her hello, felt like a kiss on the cheek. “This is my stop! I’m going straight to bed!”
Stephanie bounced off the bus, and for a moment, the bus settled back into its usual anonymous murmur, but then the bus pulled over to pick up three friends at a bus stop: one appeared to be a man with a full beard who was cross-dressing: his blond wig was long and so wild that it looked like a child’s abused Barbie doll’s hair. A second friend seemed to be a woman in the severe blacks and whites of the gothic style. Her hair was straight and coiffed and an unnatural red, a foil to her friend’s wild blond wig. The third friend wore a flannel shirt and a duck hunting cap so that, if we were in Montana or Eastern Washington, I would have thought he were going hunting. After a couple of stops, the three rose from their seats, the man with the blond wig in front, and I noticed his shiny gold high high heals. The driver hit the brakes a little hard, and the man in his high high heels scooted forward in fast little steps, laughing a deep guffaw as he caught himself.
A few stops later, and it was my turn to go. The driver bid me a deep good night, and I stepped into the dark. As I crossed the street to the parking lot where Ann would meet me, she greeted me from under her purple sweatshirt hood and walked me to our car. “How was the class?” she asked. “Intense,” I said, “but I’m not ready to talk about it. I want to tell you about the life on the bus.”
And so I did. And I came home, and I wrote about it. I looked up my professor’s lovingkindness prayer, but I found a Tibetan one instead, one that eases me, too:
May you be filled with loving kindness.
May you be well.
May you be peaceful and at ease.
May you be happy.
Somehow my life has to be about life, even when it’s about dying while living. Even in the pain, there must be the joy, the laughter, the ease.
The queasiness passed, and I was able to rest, Ann beside me, holding my hand.